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Iowa’s construction industry is experiencing what most other states are facing: a large number of baby boomers retiring and a lack of young people being exposed to the skilled trades. The Iowa Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) is attacking this problem from several different angles, including an innovative virtual reality trailer intended to draw middle school and high school students to construction careers and a three-pronged investment in training centers across the state.

Portable Recruiting Platform

Aware of contractors’ difficulty getting high school students to buy into the idea of pursuing construction as a career, the ABC of Iowa Board of Trustees decided they could leverage something familiar—a jobsite-like trailer—to drum up excitement about the trades among kids, guidance counselors, teachers and principals. The trailer houses three virtual reality stations, a “Did You Know” video station that highlights unique construction facts and a video station that showcases the ABC of Iowa apprenticeship program.  

“Virtual reality was introduced as a way to not only captivate students’ attention, but also give them a real feel of what it is like to be on a construction jobsite,” says Greg Spenner, president of the ABC Iowa Chapter. “The audio in the videos explains what the possible career paths are for each highlighted trade, the scope of work they could be performing and where they may be working each day.”

The trailer, completed in late October, also shows what is typically hidden behind the walls in a house or business (e.g., an interactive LED lighting display, a pump that feeds a heating or cooling unit, metal and wood studs, and ductwork hanging from the ceiling). 

To date, the trailer has visited one high school and a middle school, and was used at the chapter’s Excellence in Construction® Awards Gala and its annual Craft Championships competition, which more than 300 high school students attended. 

“The days of being able to put out a table with brochures and candy to attract young people to talk with you are gone. Today’s young people want to touch and feel, but that is also hard to create at an 8-foot table at a career fair,” says Ginny Shindelar, vice president of education and training at the ABC Iowa Chapter. 

“Rather than just outfit a trailer with construction tools and equipment, we hired a firm that created virtual reality videos on our members’ jobsites. Now the students walk through the trailer to read, learn, touch and see the tools of our industry, and when they put on the goggles, they are transported to a real jobsite and get a feel for what it’s like to be a skilled craft professional.”

While that is exciting, teachers, parents and administrators equally appreciate all of the information that is available in the trailer to ensure students are making informed, educated decisions about their future.

Enhanced Regional Training Options

To match that effort on the recruitment side, the chapter is improving its brick-and-mortar training centers to make sure they’re ready for increased enrollment in various trades. 

Since 2012, the chapter has operated a training center in Hiawatha—part of the Cedar Rapids metro area—but it outgrew that 3,200-square-foot facility due to a significant uptick in enrollment. As a result, the ABC of Iowa Apprenticeship Trustees approved the move to a 10,155-square-foot facility in 2017. The new Hiawatha facility provides larger classrooms and significantly more hands-on lab training space—allowing apprenticeship training in eastern Iowa to expand from just electrical to plumbing and HVAC as well.

“We now have the capacity to hold larger classes and up to three classes in the same evening if needed,” Spenner says. “In addition to apprenticeship training, we offer safety-related training classes and continuing education classes that are required for all journeyman and masters who are licensed in the electrical, plumbing or mechanical trades.”

Recognizing the need for similar expansion in far eastern Iowa, earlier this winter the chapter entered into a lease agreement for 9,100 square feet of classroom and hands-on training space in Davenport, completed in late January. The buildout means more electrical apprenticeship training in this geographic area, as well the ability to start planning to add plumbing training for the 2018-2019 school year.

Finally, last month the trustees voted to approve an 8,000-square-foot addition to the chapter’s main training facility, which also houses The ABC of Iowa Chapter office, in Grimes, a northwest suburb of Des Moines. 

Currently, two buildings totaling 24,000 square feet occupy the Grimes campus, with classroom and lab training space accounting for approximately 18,000 square feet. The addition will increase classroom capacity in Grimes from six to 10, and it will double the amount of lab training space. 


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