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Rising trade school enrollment a good sign for talent-hungry construction companies

Construction companies say their top challenge remains finding enough skilled people to keep up with a growing roster of projects, but the search could be getting easier.

Megan Dancause believes the tide is turning based on the enrollment figures she is seeing at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, a school known for its construction trades programs. Dancause is assistant director of admissions.

Thaddeus Stevens has about 630 students enrolled in its freshman class, the most in its history and about twice the size of the sophomore class. And every program at the school has received more applications from potential students, which could fuel future growth in the school’s student body.

“I think students, educators and parents are starting to get that a four-year degree isn’t for everybody,” Dancause said. “You can make a family-sustaining wage with a two-year education. And they are hearing more about the skills gap.”

The National Center for Education Statistics said undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. increased by 29 percent at two-year postsecondary institutions between 2000 and 2010 before falling off during the recession. The center is projecting enrollment at two-year schools to increase by 21 percent between 2015 and 2026, while overall undergraduate enrollment could grow by 14 percent over that span to 19.3 million students. 

Dancause credits local initiatives like Construction Trades Day, an annual event developed by Clay Township-based Landmark Homes in partnership with Thaddeus Stevens, for growing enrollment interest. The event introduces local high school students to career opportunities in the construction industry.

The four-year-old event attracts more people each year. More than 300 students participated last month in the most recent Construction Trades Day, which was held at Landmark’s Hawk Valley Estates community in Brecknock Township.

Dancause believes some of those students may head right into the workforce after high school, which can benefit homebuilders like Landmark. Others may explore a two-year program at Thaddeus Stevens or another trade and technical school.

“(Trades Day) has a ripple effect,” she said. “We see that ripple effect of more campus tours and more applications.”

Metal fabrication and welding technology is a popular program at Thaddeus Stevens. New students also are being drawn to electro-mechanical technology, along with tried-and-true programs such as carpentry.

The college’s newest fall program is computer software engineering. It was one of the first programs to fill up.

Thaddeus Stevens, a state-owned college, is currently expanding its training spaces to the tune of $20 million to accommodate future enrollment growth. The school currently has about 1,100 students.

Cliff Weaver, Landmark’s president and CEO, hopes his company’s partnership with Thaddeus Stevens and the expanded space at the college will eventually lead to more construction workers.

“There is a big demand for trades and those type of skills,” he said, citing plumbing and electrical careers as examples. “As a young person, if you have those skills, you can get employment for the rest of your life.”

He said Landmark started the trades day event to make young people more aware of the construction industry. But as the construction industry rebounds from the recession — a time when experienced workers left the field to take other jobs — such events are becoming even more important as part of efforts to rebuild the workforce. 

In addition to people switching careers during the downturn, the construction workforce is getting older and a wave of retirements is expected in the coming years.

Home builders will need to replace those people, especially if the local housing market remains strong and demand for new homes continues to rise. Commercial builders will likely experience similar growing pains as older, experienced workers leave the workforce.

But it’s not just Central Pennsylvania that faces the challenge, Dancause added. Trade school graduates should enjoy job opportunities in many markets.

Thaddeus Stevens also hopes to increase awareness of its programs outside of Central Pennsylvania. More than 50 percent of its current students are from Lancaster County.

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