What if you could find a steady source for skilled labor and give back to your community? That’s what David Foster has been able to do through the Foundation for Applied Technical Education (FATE) program in Fairfax County, Va.
The program, a joint venture with Fairfax County Public Schools, offers high schoolers hands-on experience in a variety of trades including residential construction, automotive, and digital imaging and graphics. The construction students attend academic classes at their base school and then spend a portion of their day at a jobsite.
As a Fairfax County high school student in the early 1980s, Foster was a participant in FATE’s predecessor, the Fairfax County Vocational Education Foundation, where he learned carpentry. In 1983, when he opened Foster Remodeling Solutions, in Lorton, Va., FATE hired him as a subcontractor to help the students. He now sits on the board.
In his suburban Washington, D.C., locale, Foster couldn’t find young people who were interested in the trades; yet there were “plenty of students who are not college-bound,” he says. “I’ve hired students coming out of the FATE program. It’s a good pool of people just starting out. They have a good attitude, good skills, the right work ethic. We can bring them along quickly. Hiring them is much better than the luck of the draw with a newspaper ad.”
Students in the residential construction program build a spec home, which is sold at market rates. The program is now fully funded by the sale of these homes. Students are paid to participate. The program doesn’t compete with builders, Foster says. “It’s here to give an educational experience to students based on their skills.”
KEY TO THE FUTURE
There are similar programs in other communities across the nation, but not enough of them, says Dan Taddei, director of education for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). And such programs “are critical to the future of the industry.” NARI has tried to start programs in several states, Taddei says, but “we often have difficulty finding instructors with the necessary skill levels.”
When programs do exist, they’re often seen as a dumping ground for the less academically inclined. Foster says that has changed with the FATE program, which enjoys a solid reputation and people eager to purchase the homes. Also, students and their parents often don’t know what programs or scholarships — such as those offered by the National Remodeling Foundation, www.nationalremodelingfoundation.org — are available for furthering education in the industry.
Unfortunately, Taddei doesn’t see many new vocational programs developing and says that NARI is struggling to keep its existing programs. One bright spot is SkillsUSA, www.skillsusa.org, a national organization that offers high school and post-secondary students the opportunity to compete against one another in various trades. Each June, nationals are held in Kansas City, Mo. Construction participants compete over a three-day period in carpentry, cabinetmaking, wiring, plumbing, and teamwork.
Remodelers and contractors recognize their own needs; they will have to convince state and local agencies, educational facilities, and parents that there are good opportunities within the industry. Maybe it’s not just sports teams that should travel the country recruiting the best players.