VHS students build promising futures

Joshua Fulwider, a student in The Villages High School Construction Management Academy, maneuvers a roof truss into place on a home being built for Habitat for Humanity Lake-Sumter in Lady Lake.

The Villages High School Construction Management Academy is fulfilling a community need by producing a quality supply of workers to meet the growing demand for them. It’s a formula that works well, said Mike Manly, president and CEO of MiCo Customs, a fast-growing diversified construction management company based at the Gov. Rick Scott Industrial Park. Recent academy graduates Colby Sharp and Adam Hatfield graduated with construction-ready skills and motivated to work, said Manly, a member of the academy’s board of advisers. “Within six months, we pulled both of them out of the field, and they are now working in executive assistant-type positions,” he said.

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“They’re talented all the way around. I lucked out, and hit two home runs back to back.”

The recent hires are fortuitous, too, Manly said, considering the current weakness in the labor supply.

“I’ve been running two radio ads for five weeks now on two different stations that reach three counties, and all we got is one application,” he said. “To get those guys out of the construction academy and going straight to work is a win-win not only for them but us.”

The demand for skilled construction workers is substantial, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Construction employment was on track the first six months of 2020 in Sumter County, despite the pandemic, to exceed the average employment for the prior year, according to the federal agency’s data.

And the demand shows no sign of slowing either, according to the latest edition of the agency’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. “Overall employment of construction laborers and helpers is projected to grow 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.”

That demand plays right into the aspirations of young adults like Sharp, a lifelong Sumter resident who graduated in 2019 from the Construction Management Academy and now works as an inventory manager at MiCo Customs.

“I never saw myself going to college,” he said. “I thought the academy would be good for me for what I wanted to do.”

It was Bruce Haberle, the academy’s teacher, who helped guide Sharp’s career path.

“My senior year with Mr. Haberle was when it hit me, and we started building for Habitat for Humanity,” Sharp said. “It was so awesome seeing the house we built from when we started it to the finished product. It’s just awesome to see a finished product, knowing you put hours and hours and days into it and knowing you helped someone get into a home.”

Sharp is now one of the academy’s most enthusiastic ambassadors.

“I tell kids if you’re interested in it, go for it,” he said. “It opens up all sorts of opportunities. It’s something that will help you in the future if you see yourself in the construction business.”

It also comes with rewards, judging from the latest BLS data. Sumter’s average quarterly construction wages exceeded $1,000 a week during the second quarter 2020.

Haberle currently is working with nine seniors and 17 juniors in the current Construction Management Academy, each with hopes of someday helping to meet the demand for skilled construction workers locally.

Two of his current students are already working part-time jobs — one for a local cabinet maker and the other for a framing contractor, he said.

Each class receives practical experience a few hours each day in the development of a Habitat for Humanity Home in Lady Lake, Haberle said.

“I have a morning and afternoon class,” he said. “The afternoon class would work until dark, if I let them. It’s all about their enthusiasm and passion for the business. They love what they’re doing.”

It’s not just about these kids swinging hammers, said Haberle, who worked 40 years as a general contractor with a family-owned company that built high-end residential and commercial projects in New Jersey.

The students graduate now only with certification through the National Center for Construction Education & Research, a standardized training and credentialing program, but also the 10-hour health and safety certification through the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

“I get great satisfaction in the success of these kids,” Haberle said. “There are parts of me that I wished I could have started this a long time ago. I always wanted to give back to an industry that treated me so well.”

What inspires Robin Grant, The Villages Charter School high school principal, is the commitment of the Sumter building industry to the academy. Its 30-member advisory board includes some of the area’s most successful contractors, including the T&D Family of Cos., Galaxy Homes Solutions, Lenhart Electric, Munn’s Sales & Service, Mike Scott Plumbing and more.

“If there is something we need, Mr. Haberle and I don’t have to ask for it,” Grant said. “They’ve spoiled us. If we need something, and we don’t have the funds, they provide very well for us. They’re 150% behind us. And they’re doing it for the right reason. They’re snapping up these kids to work. I tell these kids all the time. You’re not just going to be swinging hammers. They’ll want to train you. They’re going to want you to manage job sites.”

The partnership with these businesses adds real world to the academy’s curriculum, he said.

“Our construction board is unbelievable in their generosity not only monetarily, but also with the services they provide,” Grant said. “They send people out to give demonstrations. So our kids are getting one-on-one instruction with successful professionals in the industry. We’re giving these students an opportunity to go straight into the workforce at a step above entry level. They’re going in with knowledge and certifications they’ve gained first hand on the job site.”

What also inspires Grant is the students’ commitment to excellence over mediocrity through the Charter School’s core values of hospitality, stewardship, hard work and innovation and creativity.

“This program offers a sequence of courses that provides coherent and rigorous content aligned with challenging academic standards and relevant technical knowledge and skills needed to prepare for further education and careers in the architecture and construction career field,” he said. “It really has hit the spot with our kids, with many of them taking dual-enrollment college and advance placement courses. This is not a last-resort program; it’s a career choice.”

Specialty Editor David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.