Last month some high school students attended a drywall installation clinic at Pasadena ISD’s L.P. Card Career and Technical Center led by a team from the Houston division of Marek Brothers Systems. The team from Marek – which included Saied Alavi, Terry Holcombe, Dave McMillan, Buddy Britt, and Aurelio Flores – gave a classroom presentation to the two dozen students in Pasadena, Texas before leading them in a hands-on workshop where they shared their experience and crafts knowledge with the students.
Saied Alavi began with an introduction, giving a little background information about Marek Brothers Systems. He talked about the opportunities individuals coming out of high school can find at Marek, and the wage level and potential for career growth they could expect. He explained how those who stay with the company have opportunities to move up to become a supervisor, a foreman, or even a superintendent – it is up to each individual how far he or she can move up the company career ladder. He stated: “We don’t choose anyone by their height, by their size, by the color of their hair – it’s all based on your work. It’s an open race. Just as in track and field, when everybody lines up, it all depends on who runs the fastest. In Real Life it is the same way. If you want to improve, and you want to advance, you work hard and you learn from your foreman – that’s how you move up.”
He went on to explain that construction requires very skilled labor, and that Marek is looking for young people who know math, geometry, and can read and write well. Construction has to be documented, and to be successful, a person must be able to communicate with the architect and other contractors in writing.
It is also about safety. When Alavi told the school director about the number of construction deaths that have occurred in Texas, she said “Don’t say that to our students!” But Alavi explained that the reason there are so many accidents is that in some companies there is not enough emphasis on safety. At Marek, “it’s all about safety!”
Alavi then turned the session over to Terry Holcombe, who talked about working at Marek for 26½ years. When he began working for the company, he noticed the guys who were more skilled than he was, and he said to himself, “That’s what I want to do.” So he learned from others until one by one he could do what they could do. When he learned all he could from those beside him, he began to look up to the next level. He advised “You’ve got to set your goals. You’ve got to set them, and stick with them. Once I got to be the lead man, I worked to become the foreman. Eventually, with a lot of hard work, I became the foreman. Then I set my sights higher. I wanted to be the superintendent – I wanted to be over the guys working the job. Like Saied said, it’s all for the team, but no one is going to put it on a silver platter for you.”
He said that safety is “number one” at Marek, and so is attendance. He stated that safety and attendance are pretty much the main reasons that a person could be fired from most construction companies. If a person is highly skilled but only comes to work part of the time, the foreman will prefer to keep the next person who can be depended upon to show up on time for work every day, even if he is less skilled.
He also explained the safety training that Marek employees go through and how serious the company is about safe practices. He stated that everyone is expected to treat each other like family. He tells new hires: “Welcome to the Marek family of companies. This is a family.... We unite as a family. We work two-man teams, three-man teams, four-man teams depending on the task we are doing, but you are responsible for your co-worker. If you let your co-worker get up on the very top of a 6 or 8-foot ladder where you know he is not supposed to be and he gets caught, you suffer the same consequences because you didn’t correct him.”
Following the classroom presentation, the teachers and students headed off to the workshop with the other Marek professionals while Alavi and I sat down with the school’s director, Sarah Wrobleski.
In talking about the need that exists for workers who are trained in the skilled trades, Alavi mentioned that many people do not realize that construction jobs are very technical, and for this reason millions of jobs remain unfilled without qualified applicants to fill them. Sarah agreed that public perception regarding construction careers is often unfounded. She lamented that people sometimes look down on what they consider “blue-collar” work. Then with a smile she mentioned “But the money’s not ‘blue-collar’... it’s real money.”
She and Alavi agreed that the perception of the construction industry by society and therefore by parents and students has been negative. People want to see magnificent buildings built, but they do not want to see the workers who are building them. That has to change. Wrobleski said that schools like L.P. Card Career Center need the help of industry professionals like the team from Marek. She said “Without real-world opportunities, we are just another class.” You can listen to more of Wrobleski’s remarks in the 4-minute video below.
The L.P. Card Career and Technical Center is a high school campus where approximately 350 juniors and seniors who are enrolled in certain career and technical programs (including construction technology) attend courses for half of each school day while remaining enrolled in classes at their home Pasadena ISD campuses for the other half of each day. A new Career and Technology High School is currently under construction which will allow approximately 1700 students in these programs to attend one school full time and for all four years. The regular curriculum there will be tied to the knowledge they will need in construction, automotive technology, electrical trades, or whatever their focus of study will is. The new school is scheduled to open in August 2014.
Look for my interview of one of the instructors at L.P. Card, Mr. Lupe Garza, in an upcoming blog, which will also include video of the students learning to install drywall in the workshop that day.