Marcia Untitled 1One Kid at a Time

By Marcia Gruver Doyle

It’s been 10 years since the Construction Careers Center high school in St. Louis accepted its first freshman class. The charter school – called “Triple C” by its students – has room for 450 students. About 100 spaces will go unfilled this fall.

“Recruiting is a heavy lift every year,” admits Len Toenjes, president of the Associated General Contractors of St. Louis, which conceived and has carefully nurtured this first-in-the-country construction-specific high school.

The forces aligned against recruiting and retention are complex, says Toenjes, including a pervasive lack of family structure. Add on elementary school educations that sometimes lag behind by four levels, and “you’ve got a lot of gap to make up,” he comments.

So school recruiting has to take into account many will not graduate. The school’s goal is to recruit 125 students each year, but typically only 50 to 60 kids make it all the way through. A lot is expected from a Triple C student: they must adhere to strict codes of conduct, attend school for 200 days a year, and be drug tested.

2011 grad Tim Jones will tell you it’s worth it, however. He entered as a freshman, and took right to the regimen. Now a business sponsor is giving him a full ride to the University of Missouri to study civil engineering this fall. He’s not exactly sure what he’ll do with a degree but the idea of building in third world countries intrigues him.

Terral Henderson, a 2007 graduate, went the apprenticeship route, and is now a journeyman ironworker working for Fred Weber Incorporated, Maryland Heights, Missouri. Terral says Triple C prepared him for the workforce. But Terral’s also one driven man. While working full time, he has put in 34 credit hours toward a business/construction manager degree. He makes no secret about wanting to own his own company.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Toenjes vows.

Brian Cox, a 2006 grad, has similar aspirations. Now project manager for C&R Mechanical, Bridgeton, Missouri, he says Triple C is a “phenomenal program. I want to do what I can to help it along.”

AGC shepherds the Tims, Terrals and Brians for up to five years as they go into the workforce, an apprenticeship program or some form of post-secondary education. “We’ve learned you just don’t hand our students a diploma and say ‘have a nice day’,” Toenges says. “These kids are still dealing with a variety of issues.”

Last year, the association had to think hard about whether they wanted to renew their charter – and correct some problems. The school board – made up of four AGC member contractors, a union representative, a parent and an educator – changed the school’s leadership and recruitment approach.

Backed by unions and the community, the group does this even though it knows it’s at best a partial approach to the looming construction workforce shortage – only about a third of the graduates end up in construction.

While Terral, Tim and Brian are the envisioned result, the school still faces that high attrition rate and those unfilled spots. “We are in it for the long haul,” Toenjes vows. “As trite as it sounds, you have to take it one kid at a time.” EW