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Hundreds of teens turn out for 'Construction Day' as industry looks to expand its reach

Haven Monk-George donned a red helmet as she works on a virtual welding simulator, holding the device that replicates a torch while her movements are recorded on a computer screen behind her. The 15-year-old School of the Arts student was among the more than 1,000 middle and high schoolers who attended the 25th annual Rochester Careers in Construction Day on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, at the Monroe County Fleet Center.
Brian Sharp
/
WXXI News
Haven Monk-George works on a virtual welding simulator. The 15-year-old School of the Arts student was among the more than 1,000 middle and high schoolers who attended the 25th annual Rochester Careers in Construction Day on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, at the Monroe County Fleet Center.

Haven Monk-George pulled the helmet down over her head and tried again on the virtual welding simulator.

“I forget the name of the type of welding,” the 16-year-old said. “But it's not a type of welding that I usually do.”

She was among more than 1,000 area middle and high school students who came out Thursday for the 25th annual Rochester Careers in Consruction Day at the Monroe County Fleet Center. Dozens of vendors, employers, and construction unions provided hands-on demonstrations of everything from bricklaying to operating heavy equipment to welding. They also provided information on career pathways and apprenticeships.

Monk-George is eying a career in the medical field. But as a theater tech major at Rochester’s School of the Arts she helps build sets for shows they put on. Thus, her experience with welding.

“Right now we're working on ‘Home, I’m Darling,’ we just finished up the set for that,” she said. “So it's stuff I do every day. Every morning, I wake up and do this.”

Construction Day is one of the largest career fairs in upstate New York and it drew a number of dignitaries Thursday including state labor commissioner Roberta Reardon.

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“It's exposing young people ... to what the skill sets are like, and how exciting it could be to be in this business,” she said. “It's not just – I'm sorry, it's not just swinging a hammer or using a paintbrush. It's high-tech skills. They use drones, they use a lot of new tech innovations and machinery.

More than 1,000 middle and high school students attended the 25th annual Rochester Careers in Construction Day on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, at the Monroe County Fleet Center.
Brian Sharp
/
WXXI News
More than 1,000 middle and high school students attended the 25th annual Rochester Careers in Construction Day on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, at the Monroe County Fleet Center.

“And they're constantly learning because as the industry evolves, so do the workers.”

Construction employment in the Rochester metro area is on the rise – increasing by 3% or 700 positions over the past four years, having fully recovered from pandemic-related losses to reach a current high of 23,900 employed. This while overall private sector employment continues to struggle. It’s down 2.2 percent — or 10,000 jobs — despite 30 consecutive months of year-over-year employment growth, according to state labor officials.

The outlook is also strong, though the vast majority of new jobs expected over the coming decade will be to replace retirees or workers who transfer to other occupations.

Alfred State College provides some measure of interest, with the latest uptick in enrollment attributed largely to the building trades.

"When I was dean, we had two sections of electrical. Right now we have eight,” said Craig Clark, the college’s vice president for economic development, also noting the college has opened another branch campus in Buffalo. “So, I mean, it's expanding because of the huge demand …. Students are figuring out (construction is) a good career path.”

There are hurdles, though, particularly when it comes to bringing women and people of color into the ranks.

“We still lag in diversity,” said Joe Morelle Jr., head of UniCon, which represents the construction industry and trades throughout the Finger Lakes region. “But what we're recognizing is we know what the barriers are. It's childcare, its transportation.”

A construction site can be fully underway by 6 or 6:30 a.m., he said, long before most childcare centers are open. And the work isn’t just in the city, or along bus lines.

“That's why we're working with the county. We're working with the city. We're working with the contractors to see what can we do to eliminate barriers,” Morelle said. “The contractors need these folks. I mean, contractors will tell you today. We got more work than we have people to do. And that is a problem. We have to get back on the right track.”

Another hurdle is perceptions of the field itself.

“There's a mindset for a lot of parents that they don't want their kids to work with their hands,” said Reardon, the labor commissioner. “They want them to get a four-year college degree and become some kind of professional. And we're really pushing back against that.”

Kaysia Jones, a 15-year-old Edison Tech student, sits in the cab of a backhoe, getting instruction from a tradesman on how to work the shovel during the 25th annual Rochester Careers in Construction Day on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023 at the Monroe County Fleet Center.
Brian Sharp
/
WXXI News
Kaysia Jones, a 15-year-old Edison Tech student, gets instruction on how to operate a backhoe during the 25th annual Rochester Careers in Construction Day on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023 at the Monroe County Fleet Center.

She continued: “Apprenticeship is not something other than college. Apprenticeship is another form of higher ed, but it's hands on training. And you know, as the world becomes more technological, we're going to need more and more people who have the skills. So changing that mindset is really, really critical.”

If Construction Day is any measure, things are shifting. It drew a diverse crowd as well as school counselors and teachers.

“I mean, we turned away 12 school districts, because we just didn't have capacity with all the students here and the equipment, vendors,” Morelle said.

Students moved between stations, taking their turn at different trades. But it was the excavators and loaders that drew some of the biggest crowds.

Fifteen-year-old Kaysia Jones took a turn scooping dirt with a backhoe. But the Edison Tech student says masonry – bricklaying — is her passion.

“Yeah, definitey I could see myself doing that in the future after I get out of high school,” she said.

Jones said she ended up in a class at Edison where she got to try bricklaying – and loved it.

"You get to focus on one thing. And, you know, it's a craft. It takes time to perfect it. So I feel like I love it because,” she laughs, “it's just cool. I don't know.”

Come next month, the training center will welcome what local officials say is the largest first-year apprentice class on record.

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.