A new Construction Science Academy may help solve a national labor shortage in the building industry and at the same time, contribute to the financial stability of Waco ISD’s Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy.

Officials hope the new program attracts new students to the academy.

“I honestly foresee this program being the main driver of GWAMA within five years,” said Scott Bland, president of the Heart of Texas Builders Association. Bland has pushed for the new construction science academy.

The Waco ISD board of trustees approved the new program during its meeting Thursday. It will be the fourth program GWAMA offers and is expected to start August 2017, according to district documents. The three other programs include a welding academy, a precision metal manufacturing academy and a robotics and electronics academy.

In its first year with one instructor, the program is expected to bring in as many as 80 students, GWAMA director Dale McCall said. The extra effort to recruit new students is part of the school’s goal to offset the September expiration of the almost $6 million federal grant that helped GWAMA get off the ground in its first three years, McCall said.

The school serves 185 sophomores, juniors and seniors from 15 school districts. Officials hope to have an enrollment of 250 to 300 students for next year. At capacity, the school can hold 400 students, and the money brought in by additional enrollment will help the academy sustain itself, McCall said earlier this month.

“That’s encouraging to us because there was the concern we would be taking students from within our own and drawing students out of welding to come to construction science,” McCall said. “We’re actually reaching students who aren’t part of the manufacturing or who hadn’t shown interest in manufacturing.”

As of Oct. 18, 506 construction jobs existed in Waco on the job search website Monster.com, and the new academy is a perfect opportunity to put skilled workers in those spots, Bland said. When the housing market collapsed in 2007, construction workers began to leave the industry, he said.

A great need

“That (recruitment) is what brought us to GWAMA in the first place. They had space in the facility that was being unused, and more than enough space to do our program, and they needed the students,” Bland said. “We have a greater need than for any program that exists in GWAMA right now. We’re not a single-sourced industry. In construction, you have so many industries for students to get involved in — plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning, masonry, general construction, etc.”

At least 52 percent of homebuilders experienced a labor shortage in June 2015, and the average age of trade professionals is 58, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The percentage of homebuilders who experienced a labor shortage in 2015 was up from 46 percent in 2014.

In the new academy’s first year, students will learn basic tool use and safety measures. In the second year, students could learn more in-depth skills related to plumbing, electricity, heating, masonry and carpentry. By the last year, students would be eligible for a paid internship in a specialized area, where they could work four days in the field and one day in the classroom, Bland said.

Those kinds of opportunities can help students who don’t want to attend college or need help paying for college land an entry-level position making anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000, Bland said.

Several local businesses and community leaders have sent either letters of support or financial commitments to the district so far, according to district documents.

“All of our industry members are always asked to recruit, so they’re always looking to recruit via school board members in their districts, principals they know in their district, students they know in their districts,” McCall said. “We want all of our industry partners to be recruiting at whatever level they feel comfortable with.”

The letters include support from Congressman Bill Flores, state representatives Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal, Overhead Door Company of Waco, Barron Environmental Service and Technologies, the Magnolia Foundation and others.

“That was a big emphasis for us as a business community to want to have paid internships their senior year to keep our talent here,” Bland said. “The thing about our industry is we can’t be outsourced. Even in slow times, there’s still a need for commercial construction and residential construction. I can’t build your house in China. I can’t build your house in Mexico. I can’t build it in Canada. It has to be built here. Our industry is sustainable. The program is sustainable. It gives GWAMA what it needs, so it’s a win-win.”

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