Building job skills at SFCC


Kevin Law, standing (in blue), an assistant superintendent with BBI Construction Management, chats pipe fitters roughing in plumbing Friday morning, Jan. 11, 2008, for a renovated men's restroom at Santa Fe Community College. Law is taking 15 hours of classes at Santa Fe while working full-time for BBI. He said he will graduate this spring

JARRETT BAKER/Special to The Sun
Published: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

New home construction starts are plummeting.

Government agencies are slashing spending.

Economists are speculating the nation has entered a recession.

Those factors alone or in combination can mean instability in the construction sector. Despite all three factors at work this winter, Santa Fe Community College has retained its near perfect job placement rate for graduates of its two-year construction management program and for its apprenticeship programs.

"We are still trying to grow our programs to meet demand," said Jim McMullen, director of the SFCC Construction and Technical Programs.

It seems unlikely in the current financial climate that the construction industry would need more employees.

On Tuesday, the Florida Homes Builders Association released statistics showing construction starts on new homes declined more than 50 percent between spring 2005 and fall 2007. On Wednesday, state officials raised the possibility that another $2 billion will need to be slashed from Florida's budget. On Thursday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke hinted that an interest rate cut was likely at the end of the month as a means to stimulate the U.S. economy.

In its latest report issued in August, the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation projected nearly 3,000 openings for carpenters, more than 2,000 openings for construction managers and about 1,200 openings for construction foremen.

SFCC officials said, despite the turbulent economic times, construction projects are continuing and will continue but may not be like past projects.

"The days of huge developments around golf courses and lakes may be over, but investors who own vacant land are not going to let it set. They are eventually going to develop it," said Fred Hart, a longtime contractor and the SFCC program coordinator of building construction. "The housing market has gone up and down for years and right now that market is fixing itself. There is still construction going on in other areas."

For example, a project budgeted months ago is under way this month to convert four small public restrooms at SFCC into two large restrooms that meet current standards. Shands at the University of Florida is far along on work on its new cancer hospital. In downtown Gainesville, apartments and condominiums are still being planned and built.

SFCC offers four areas of construction education to about 300 students at a time. While most go on to jobs in the construction industry directly from SFCC, some choose to continue their education.

About half the students are in programs that will send them directly to the work force. Those are dual-enrollment high school students and the post-high school students enrolled in apprenticeship programs in carpentry, plumbing, electrical and heating/air conditioning.

The other half of the students are enrolled in one of two associate degree programs, one that will send them to job sites as assistant superintendents and another that will send them to four-year schools like the Rinker School of Building Construction at the University of Florida.

"The industry has changed," McMullen said. "It's not some guy working his way up to superintendent like it was way back when. Now people need to know building codes and insurance law and estimating and a lot of other things and that requires a formal education."

To ensure that graduates of the associate degree programs have both the practical and theoretical backgrounds to manage construction job sites, SFCC requires students be employed in construction jobs while they are in school.

Kevin Law, a 2003 graduate of Gainesville High School and current employee of BBI Construction Management Inc., said his family includes lots of construction workers so he understood what the industry was about before enrolling at SFCC.

"Now if you want to become a superintendent, you've got to have some paperwork, a degree," Law said. "That's why I'm here."

Karen Voyles can be reached at 352-359-5656 or kvoyles@gmail.com.

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