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Carolina CAT: Building the Construction Trades from the Ground Up

| Education & Workforce Development

‘Success Stories in Action’ spotlights success stories working toward solutions to pressing workforce challenges, as part of the NC Chamber Foundation’s Institute for Workforce Competitiveness.

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They may not have walked across the stage to get their high school diploma yet.

But for some Union County high school students, they are well on their way to establishing themselves in a very lucrative career.

“There are a lot of guys in our trade that, as soon as they get a few years of experience, they could make over $100,000 a year and it doesn’t require all that schooling,” said Chris Duarte, talent acquisition partner with Carolina CAT, a Charlotte-based Caterpillar dealer, supplying commercial and industrial equipment to Western North Carolina.

Duarte is talking about the construction trades and there are many opportunities, including for recent high school graduates.

“There’s a huge need in skill trade jobs right now,” said Kris Hannah, marketing manager with State Utility Contractors, a Monroe-based, employee-owned company that builds water and wastewater treatment plants, pump stations, and water pipeline systems.

The challenge is getting that message to those high school students who need to hear it.

So, every spring, Carolina CAT and State Utility Contractors partner to host a construction rodeo.

The students, typically 11th and 12th graders who have shown an interest in the construction trades, go station to station and learn how to use different types of construction equipment.

“We make five stations, and we usually have two excavators because those are usually the favorite with the kids,” said Hannah. “They get on and it’s like a video game. So, they like that. We also have a track loader and a skid steer that’s got the forks on it.”

“When you look at the smiles on these kids’ faces when they run these machines and get to use the excavators and knock cones over or pick basketballs off of them and stuff like that, you get to see what those machines do, and you can just see the fun that they have in all those classes,” added Duarte.

More than 100 students from Union County Public Schools take part in the rodeo.

“Our students get an opportunity not only to drive the equipment, learn about it, they get an opportunity to learn about careers related to Carolina CAT,” said Brian Davis, director of career readiness with Union County Public Schools. “They’re also looking at careers related to State Utilities. It gives those students an opportunity to meet the professionals that are out there.”

Union County Public Schools has taken part in the rodeos since 2017.

“It helps to get students excited at an earlier age,” said Davis. “More students are staying in those pathways and we’re now getting enough return on investment that students are looking to those companies for work. In fact, some of them have been hired already by CAT and by State Utilities.”

Hannah said there is a huge labor shortage nationwide in the construction trades.

“They need to learn about these careers,” he added. “We need to educate them on these careers because they are high-paying careers. They are very rewarding careers.”

Both Hannah and Duarte said the best way for a company to get started with a program like this is to get in touch with the right person in the local school system.

Davis agreed, saying, “The first thing to do is make a connection. If you’re an industry partner, make a connection with your CTE (Career and Technical Education) director because they’re going to be the ones who have access to those programs and kind of let you know what they have available.”

Next? He said companies should work on a plan.

“What are the needs in your area,” Davis asked. “What kind of jobs are out there and how can you build a program to expose students to those jobs?”

Duarte said it’s important for companies to stick with the investment in the program.

“The ROI is really about the direct impact on the community and making those communities prosper from the careers that are out there,” he said.

Now, a few years in, the construction rodeos are gaining popularity and growing.

“Not only is it fun, but it’s something they could make money doing in a future career,” said Davis. “They get really excited about it and they come back and talk about it.”

“The students really remember it,” said Hannah. “We’ve even had teachers, principals. They all get a chance to operate equipment and it’s awesome.”

Among the school system and the two companies, they have built a program that shows no signs of slowing down.

“It’s definitely beneficial for everybody,” said Duarte. “It’s not just for the company. It’s for your local contractors, your state contractors, and then, most importantly, those students that are getting ready to start hitting the working world and have a chance at a successful career.”

“I’m just very grateful for the partnership with Carolina CAT and with State Utilities,” said Davis. “They are just exemplary partners who constantly engage with the schools.”

This profile was a collaboration with the NC Chamber Foundation as it works to spotlight solutions for current workforce challenges: how businesses are building talent pipelines, collaborating with educators to close skills gaps, and strategically planning for workforce needs. Carolina CAT is an NC Chamber Cornerstone member. Read more Success Stories in Action here.