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Program aims to draw teens to construction

By Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — Despite high construction unemployment in the Twin Cities, a mentoring program that aims to interest high school students in construction jobs is expanding to the area.

Stamford, Conn.-based ACE Mentor Program of America Inc., which offers students what it calls a hands-on introduction to construction careers, is coming when local construction unemployment is 50 percent or higher in some trades and many projects are in limbo.

The Twin Cities is among the nation’s hardest-hit metro areas when it comes to losses of construction jobs, according to a recent analysis of federal jobs data by the Associated General Contractors of America.

Between October 2009 and October 2010, roughly 5,000 construction jobs disappeared in the Twin Cities. With a 9 percent reduction in construction employment, Minneapolis-St. Paul ranked 284th among the 337 metro areas AGC examined.

So why is the program expanding to Minneapolis-St. Paul at such a difficult time?

Pamela Mullender, president and CEO of ACE Mentor Program of America, said the ACE program — which stands for Architecture, Construction, Engineering — reaches out to high school students who won’t be actively looking for jobs until four years from now.

In theory at least, the economy will be more robust and more jobs will be available by then.

Another issue: Many of the baby boomers working in the trades are getting close to retirement, and young people aren’t exactly lining up to take their place.

Mullender said someone will have to fill those jobs because there’s a lot of building yet to be done. She cited information from the Brookings Institution, which estimates that half of the buildings people will use in 2030 will have been built after 2000. Roads, bridges, airports and renovations will offer additional work.

“Granted, the construction industry has been probably hurt as much as any industry during this economic period, but the men and women who support this program know that they can’t just sit by and wait for this to pass and not do anything about the critical work force need that the construction industry is going to have,” Mullender said.

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The program pairs construction professionals — including architects, engineers and construction managers — with teams of about 10 students.

The mentors meet with students 15 times a year, lead field trips of construction sites and help the students design a mock project, which could include anything from a baseball stadium to a school.

The proteges ultimately present the project to teachers and fellow students.

Since its beginning in 1995, the ACE Mentor program has established a presence in 400 cities across the country and has handed out $9.5 million in scholarships, according to Mullender.

A couple of local organizations that have been national sponsors of the program, including PCL Construction Services Inc. and M.A. Mortenson Co., approached ACE about establishing a local affiliate.

A key focus of the Twin Cities program will be recruiting minorities and women, Otremba said.

There’s “definitely a need for more females and minorities to be in the industry,” said Paris Otremba, manager of talent acquisition and professional development for PCL. “That is the biggest thing. If you introduce them to (construction careers) in high school, the hope is they would go on and get their college education or potentially join the union.”

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