This past summer, Texas middle-school students Zara Willard and Nicholas John, both 14, received hands-on building training and inspiration to pursue engineering and construction careers at TRF Camp Build in Austin. The free five-day program for grade 6-8 students, also held in Sherman, Texas, and in other U.S. cities, was sponsored by Rosendin Electric, the fifth-largest U.S. specialty firm on ENR’s Top 600 Specialty Contractors list and the largest electrical firm in the Texas-Louisiana market. 

Led by Rosendin’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit, The Rosendin Foundation, and other industry leaders, the program guided 16 selected students as they learned basic onsite and office skills. 

Willard used several power tools including a nail gun; observed heavy machinery such as a forklift and a mini-excavator; poured concrete; learned safety skills; and heard about construction-related careers. John spent his time building stepping stones; soldering a copper stand; bending conduit; using virtual reality to estimate a build; wiring a steampunk lamp; and constructing and painting doghouse for donation to a local animal shelter

“TRF Camp Build opened up my eyes to the many different engineering and construction jobs that are available,” said Willard, from Austin. “I really enjoy working with my hands and building things, and the program got me even more interested in pursuing engineering as a career.”

John, another engineering hopeful who now is Houston high school student said, “Before TRF Camp Build, I thought computer work is what interested me because I recently built my own gaming computer. But through [it], I realized that designing and building is what fascinated me about computers. Engineering could be a good fit for me, and I liked how the camp made the concept of engineering tangible. I am excited to use my new tools and see what other things I could build.”

Going Nationwide

Milwaukee Tool® and DEWALT®/StanleyBlack&Decker provided the students with personal protection equipment and a set of tools to recognize their achievement and as a reminder to consider construction and engineering careers as they advance in their education.

TRF Camp Builds also were held from May to July in Gallatin, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., Tempe, Ariz., and Anaheim, Calif. A total of 71 young people attended the California program, split about equally between male and female students. “In this way, all campers are able see that both boys and girls can use tools to build and be successful in construction and engineering,”  said Jolsna Thomas, TRF president.

In 2019, Thomas was the inaugural chair of Camp NAWIC aligned with the National Association of Women in Construction in Austin, a free weeklong construction day camp for middle school-aged girls in central Texas, Rosendin became the title sponsor.

Women represent just 3–15% of the industry, she explains. To help remedy that,  NAWIC’s Austin chapter in 2022 awarded $45,000 in scholarships, regardless of gender. The NAWIC Founders’ Scholarship Foundation also sponsors the NFSF Scholarship, which annually provides awards from $500 to $2,500.

“Rosendin employees really enjoyed sharing their time and talents with the campers, and I recommended that we start our own coed construction camp nationally to build and empower the next generation of builders,” she says. TRF Camp Builds was the result.

Constructing Awareness

Need for a new generation of skilled industry craft workers is long-standing. Texas A&M University estimates that the state will be short 51,000 engineers by 2028. The recently released annual workforce survey by the Associated General Contractors of America and Autodesk found that of 1,400 firms questioned, 85% reported open positions they are trying to fill and 88% reported difficulty in filling at least some of those positions. The needs continue regardless of firm size, location of work, market sector and being union or nonunion. 

“The biggest takeaway from this year’s workforce survey is how much the nation is failing to prepare future workers for high-paying careers in fields like construction,” says Ken Simonson, AGC chief economist. “It is time to rethink the way the nation educates and prepares workers.”

Too little exposure to construction skills at an early age is one factor, explains Ron Wilson, a Rosendin vice president based in Anaheim, who oversees the company’s 80 electrical and civil engineers.

He recalls that in the late 1980s, high schools began dropping construction and engineering industrial arts classes to build computer labs set to prepare students for the Information Age—with no more infrastructure or buildings that would need to be constructed, or so the thinking went, he said, adding that deficiency remains built into the educational system.

Compounding this lapse, he says, is the inefficient way the industry has responded to it. “Construction and engineering don’t do that great in letting young folks know what kind of opportunities there are.”

The recruiting net must extend back to middle school, even elementary, with an eye on diversity, Wilson explains. “Even if we get more females involved in construction, we may still not make up the gap, but that will help,” he says.

The construction workforce is also aging out, as Baby Boomers retire and they are replaced by a smaller group of GenXers, Millennials and GenZers with many choosing other career paths. “We are retiring more workers than we bring in through the next decade, and it’s going to get worse unless we do something about it,” Wilson says.

'Multiple Paths to Success'

A few years ago, construction project managers were moving to tech firms, lured by higher pay, image, better working conditions and other benefits, explains Phil Thoden, president of AGC's Austin chapter. “The tech companies were realizing that project managers were adept at managing the ‘paperwork beast,’” he says, noting how essential this skill is in construction.

But tech has lost some of that glamour recently, he explains. Battered by Covid, inflation and high interest rates, tech has experienced significant layoffs. “Construction here in Austin has gone from crazy busy to just plain busy recently,” he says. “But even with that slowdown, it continues to offer many career opportunities and job security for those who continue in the industry.”

The chapter has supported the foundation program and is also involved in the ACE mentor program and with local schools and colleges. The chapter’s Construction Leadership Council awards $10,000 in annual scholarships.

The AGC workforce report urges government officials to increase investment in programs that expose students to the opportunities and skills needed for careers in construction. Simonson notes: “Boosting funding for programs that expose students to skills in careers like construction will signal to them that there are multiple paths to success in life — and one is not better than another.”