Aimee Olmedo taught Spanish for 15 years. Today, her job finds her interacting with high school students, but in a different capacity.
Olmedo is the outreach director for San Jose, California-based electrical contractor Rosendin. Recently, she helped run a weeklong summer camp for middle schoolers and led Rosendin’s participation in a larger career day event for high schoolers in Arizona.
The 2023 AZ Construction Career Days saw more than 4,500 students from 122 schools visiting a massive exhibition of booths where they got a better sense for a career in the trades. At Rosendin’s booth, students learned more about technology and computer modeling on construction projects by using virtual reality goggles to build a model car through a training program.
By seventh or eighth grade, students have often made up their minds about what career path they want to pursue, Olmedo said. As a result, Rosendin has hosted summer camps across the country for two years, with 16 to 24 students learning basic construction skills at the Arizona camp this summer.
Here, Construction Dive chats with Olmedo about the current state of the trades, education and how to develop the next generation of builders.
The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
CONSTRUCTION DIVE: How important is it to show kids all of the career opportunities they have in middle and high school?
AIMEE OLMEDO: Oh, it’s super important because, I know for my age — I’m a Gen Xer — that having that option of something else was never presented to us. It was all just college, college, college. We didn’t have these career fairs.
I don’t remember anybody coming in in high school, even if it was a doctor, lawyer or whatever — nobody ever came in and gave us talks and exposed us to a lot of options. We were on our own figuring it out.
So, you’ve got our generation and older who particularly think that construction is not the way to go, because it was just “dirty, gross work.”
Has that mindset changed?
It’s changed a lot. Construction has changed so much over the past couple of decades that there’s a lot of opportunity out there. And a lot of recruiting is about educating the kids, but I think a lot of it is also about educating the adults to let them know what’s changed.
There’s a lot of things that you don’t realize that are in the industry now that weren’t 30 years ago. And that there’s different ways to be a part of it. You don’t have to be an electrician, you don’t have to be a carpenter if you don’t want to be hands-on. That’s okay. I’m in construction and I don’t turn tools.
We’ve heard the “college, college, college” thing quite a bit, but we’ve also seen increased efforts to advocate for the trades. Has there been progress on that front?
I’ve seen it for sure. I’ve been doing this particular outreach effort for about three years now. I think the counselors in the schools, at least here in Arizona, are doing a fantastic job of getting the word out, of letting them know that you do have other options.
We have a couple of specific trade schools that partner up with the high school. Basically the kids will go to their normal high school classes for half the day, and then the other half of the day they go to one of those two trade schools and they go do their cosmetology, they go do their electrical, they go weld, whatever it is that they go and start working on their certifications for that. And I think it’s fantastic that they have that option here.
What do middle schoolers and high schoolers respond to when it comes to this outreach?
The middle schoolers just think it’s kind of fun and pretty cool that they got to make something. I think that it is very encouraging for them that they can walk away with a skill. Something that was fun, but something that’s gonna stick with them for a really long time.
On the high schooler end, basically, when I start talking about how much money they can make, that’s what gets them excited. And then the benefits and the career growth and things like that, that’s what kind of draws their attention to it.
They also don’t realize how many different opportunities are out there, because when I go through all the different things, they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” It’s not just the guy with the shovel or the stop sign and you’re not on a roof every time. There’s a lot of different pathways you could take. So I think that that strikes their interest as well. They just don’t know about it.
What can smaller contractors do to help recruit the next generation?
It’s hard. It’s difficult for small contractors, just because they don’t have as much manpower to do things. But I think it really is just getting the word out as much as you possibly can. When we hire electricians we ask them, “Hey, how did you hear about the trade in general?” Most of the time they say, “It was from my uncle, my cousin. It was from my brother’s friend.” It’s some conversation that they had with somebody, and it sparked their interest.
So I think you don’t have to have a big formal program of getting out in front of people. I think just having those informal conversations as much as you can will do the job. Because again, that’s where most people are coming from; that authentic down-to-earth conversation about it.
We have an electrician who was in the training department for a while with us. He brought somebody in because he was talking to a guy at a shoe store and he overheard the guy saying, “I’m tired of working three different jobs.” Our guy is like, “Hey man, here’s this other option for you.”
And guess what he did? He went down and he signed up. So it’s just taking advantage of those opportunities.