Career help reaches across the Ohio River

WILLIAMSTOWN-Concrete block walls are rising up out of the mud at the construction site for the new Williamstown Elementary School.

Cranes, dozers and heavy forklifts moved around the small site on Henderson Street Wednesday morning as masons laid block and supervisors consulted with one another.

It was the ideal setting for two sophomores from Marietta High School, Vivian Myers and Jaden Waterman, to get a first-hand look at a potential career: heavy equipment operation. They were there for several hours Wednesday to watch professional operators and get a feel for the atmosphere and the demands of working on an active building site.

James Pennington, the project manager for Swope Construction Co., the general contractor for the project, was animated and enthusiastic as he spoke to the two in the portable building that serves as headquarters for the project.

"We're doing mainly concrete work and masonry right now, slab pouring, electrical and lines, dirt moving," he said. "It's a big team effort, and you'll get a big taste of it today.

"These are the drawings," he said, opening a sheaf of papers on a table.

"It's taken from the project manual that lays everything out on the front end, before we even start. Now, we've got carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers and other trades working on it, everything meshing together."

Pennington said the building trades, like other blue collar professions, are suffering from a shortage of new blood.

"It is absolutely a challenge," he said. "Not that many young people are interested in the trades. These men and women are the backbone of the world you see, they've built it, the schools, the roads, the bridges and buildings, all of it."

Pennington pointed out to Myers and Waterman that trade work is one of the few occupations left in which experience counts more than education. A project manager at 38, Pennington said he started when he was 16 as a laborer.

"You can move as high as you want," he said. "It's all experience-based."

Heavy equipment operators are forecast to be in high demand, with the number of jobs expected to increase by 12 percent through 2026, significantly higher than most occupations, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The median wage nationwide last year was $22.17, and according to Ohio Labor Market Information, the median wage in southeast Ohio this year is just over $23 an hour. The LMI data indicates there are 2,300 such jobs in the region.

Swopes Construction has been on the site since April, Pennington said as he explained the site preparation process. The location was previously occupied by a Fenton Glass manufacturing plant and required a large remediation effort.

"We moved 16,000 cubic yards of dirt, and brought in clean material to replace it," he said. All that soil was excavated, moved and loaded by heavy equipment.

"It's a good field to be in," he said. "You can feel comfortable about your job security."

Myers said she has an aunt and uncle in the construction trades, but she first became interested in heavy equipment operation at a workshop held by the Washington County Career Center two weeks ago.

"I got to operate some of the equipment, and that's what got me interested," she said.

Looking around the site, she said, "It's really cool to be a part of something like this. And, I hate working indoors."

Waterman said he has some familiarity with building sites - his father is a crane operator. He attended the same career center event that Myers did.

"I wanted to see how it is on a working site," he said.

Hosting students on the site for the job-shadowing activity was a first for this job, Pennington said.

"It's a unique opportunity for us," he said. "This Williamstown Elementary School, it will be a beacon for the region, a unified vision for the future."

"And," he said, looking at the students, "You can say you've been a part of it."

The job-shadowing opportunity was arranged through Building Bridges to Careers in Marietta, an education and workforce partnership. Coordinator Tonya Davis said the agency received requests from students who wanted an experience in heavy equipment operating.

The experience provided by Swope Construction came about because Davis knew of the project and contacted Swope through the Williamstown school district,

"That led to a partnership with Williamstown High School, and we're really excited about that," she said. "It's the first West Virginia partnership for BB2C."


Heavy Equipment Operator

* Job demand outlook (2016 data): Expected to grow by 12 percent from 2016-2026

* Number of jobs (2016 data): 426,6000

* Number of jobs, southeast Ohio (current): 2,320

* Median pay (2017): $22.15/hr.

* Median pay, southeast Ohio (current): $23.10/hr.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Ohio Labor

Market Information