OKLAHOMA CITY — High-school “shop” and industrial arts classes have been “phased out” of most public schools in Oklahoma over the years, but elective courses in the construction trades would be encouraged under legislation that the House of Representatives passed Tuesday.
House Bill 1407 by Rep. Mickey Dollens (D-Oklahoma City), was approved, 92-4, and was transmitted to the Senate, where it is sponsored by Sen. Randy Bass (D-Lawton). It was the first bill by Dollens, a “freshman” legislator, to pass the House.
The intent behind House Bill 1407 is “to let kids get a head start on good-paying jobs in the construction industries,” Dollens told his colleagues. “We need career-based courses” in high school, he said recently, because not everyone wants or needs a college degree.
Research indicates that the average age of a construction worker in the United States today is 55.
“We are bordering on a severe shortage of people trained in the construction trades,” he said.
The introductory classes proposed in HB 1407 would be offered in grades 9-12 and would be entirely voluntary, not an unfunded mandate on school districts, Dollens emphasized. He said supporters of his idea are developing partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and with some unions in the state, and are considering a federal grant as a potential source of funding.
“This is a great idea!” Jeremy Hendricks, a Seminole native who is assistant business manager for the Laborers Union Southwest District, wrote on Facebook recently.
As someone who works to place construction workers on the job every day, “I can attest that there is a huge shortage of workers in the construction industry,” Hendricks said. “We have unfortunately taken these sort of introductory classes out of the high schools and kids no longer know this is a viable family-supporting career… [W]e should be encouraging these sorts of programs… I know for one, my labor union would be happy to partner with high schools to provide curriculum and access to instructors to start a pilot program to get this off the ground. I’m sure there are other funding sources out there,” as well, he wrote, thanking Dollens for “getting the process started.”
When at least one House member indicated that HB 1407 would duplicate offerings of Oklahoma’s Career and Technology Education centers, Dollens said that “not every school is near a CareerTech,” and some students do not have the minimum 2.0 grade point average required to “get into” a CareerTech industrial trades program.
“I first got the idea while teaching English at U.S. Grant High School” in south Oklahoma City, Dollens related.
“One of my students was having a hard time focusing on a book report that I assigned. He told me he wasn’t interested in the book because it wouldn’t benefit him in the career he wanted to pursue. I asked which career he aspired toward, and he said he was going to be a foreman for a construction company. I suggested he research the career path on becoming a foreman and write his book report on that. That’s all he needed to hear. The student submitted a great book report a few days later, and it was evident this was his passion.”
Students need some proof that “what they are doing in school will relate to their lives afterward,” Dollens said.
The construction industry entails more than just manual labor, he noted. For example, it involves geometry (angles of cuts and rooflines), basic math (lengths of boards and height of walls), English (reading plans and specs), and even science (how various compounds interact).
Further, he said, “Once students enroll in a construction class and see a direct correlation between what they’re doing and where they want to go, they tend to do better in their other classes, too.”
The training proposed in HB 1407 also could reduce dropout rates “and would be a tool to break the school-to-prison pipeline,” he predicted.
Dollens’ legislation would dovetail with an apprenticeship program sponsored by the Oklahoma Building & Construction Trades Council.
An apprentice is a worker who “learns a skilled trade through planned, supervised, on-the-job training and related classroom instruction,” said Jimmy Curry, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO. An apprentice earns wages while acquiring skills during a program that ranges from three to five years. After completing a program, an apprentice becomes “a journey-person, fully qualified to perform the work of the trade and earning full pay for their skill,” Curry said.
The Oklahoma Building and Construction Trades Council sponsors apprenticeships in trades such as boilermaker, bricklayer, plumber and pipefitter, sheet metal worker, sprinkler fitter, electrician, elevator mechanic, roofer, heat and frost insulator, ironworker, painter, decorator, pipeliner, and glazier (cutting, installing, replacing and removing residential, commercial, and artistic glass).