Young, enthusiastic, educated professionals compete for positions at Neil Kelly Co., in Portland, Ore., and there's little mystery why. The learning never stops, the workforce is diverse, and the camaraderie is great.

“It's like a family,” says Katie Martin, a 24-year-old design associate/project management assistant who recently became the company's first LEED-accredited professional. She serves on committees, works with clients, and enjoys friendships and company-supported “extra-curricular activities” from happy hours to volunteer opportunities.

“I'm huge on being social,” adds 25-year-old design associate Nancy Duong. Citing two key priorities for young workers, she's made some good friends in her job, and she gets to use the skills she learned in school, thanks to a workload that includes drafting, writing specifications, and helping clients with selections.

Neil Kelly Co. practically leaps off the radar screens of students in northwest Oregon. Outreach activities range from job shadows for high school and college students to a highly visible presence in the Housing Studies program at Oregon State University, which produced 24 of the company's nearly 160 employees, including Martin and Duong.

Twenty-four Neil Kelly Co. Employees (including these) came from Oregon State University.
Neil Kelly Co. Twenty-four Neil Kelly Co. Employees (including these) came from Oregon State University.

“I think we're one of the only remodelers in the country that are, in a sense, recruiting on college campuses,” says Tom Kelly, president. His company sends staff to speak in classes at Oregon State and other nearby schools, has a structured internship program, helps develop career symposia, and more. “We get to know them, and they get to know us,” he says.

“You hear about Neil Kelly since your freshman year,” Duong says. She and Martin don't remember other remodelers even trying to make an impact — but both agree that students would appreciate it if they did, in Oregon or elsewhere.

RADAR, RADAR And that may be the real mystery behind the much-discussed decline of interest in remodeling careers. Most high-end remodelers invest heavily in attracting new clients. Why don't they work as hard to attract new talent?

In southwestern Virginia, the Building Construction program at Virginia Tech has about 360 undergraduate and graduate students, says Dannette Gomez-Beane, coordinator of outreach and career development. Employers can meet them through twice-yearly career fairs, evening informational sessions, and access to student résumés.

Big builders and commercial construction companies from all over the Mid-Atlantic get involved, but residential remodelers? “I can't think of any,” Gomez-Beane says. “There's definitely an interest in remodeling. I think if we had more of a presence of these types of companies, interest would grow” — particularly if students knew about opportunities “to manage and do executive-type work,” she says.

Back at Neil Kelly Co., the consensus is that the rising generation represents “a different kind of American culture,” says Julia Spence, vice president of human resources. “Participation is huge,” as is “having your ideas taken seriously.” New demographic challenges will be ongoing, but even small remodelers can extend a bigger welcome, she says.

For information about Virginia Tech's Construction Career Fair or résumé bank, e-mail Universities with similar building construction programs include Georgia Tech, Arizona State, Texas A&M, and Auburn. The National Kitchen & Bath Association has chapters at more than 20 universities, including Oregon State and Virginia Tech.

Leah Thayer is a senior editor for REMODELING.