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From Idea to Reality

Hands-on Training Program Brought to Fond du Lac High School

Written by Dorothy Bliskey and Photographed by Travis Pohl of E&M Photography

When two strong leaders in the construction industry put their heads together on an idea, the chances of a positive result are usually excellent. That was the case when Bob Roehrig, Vice President of Sales for County Materials Corporation, met with Pat Smith of C.D. Smith Construction, a Fond du Lac business that builds commercial and industrial facilities in Wisconsin and nationwide.
Their idea was to get other construction businesses together to form a hands-on construction training center at Fond du Lac High School – one that would draw boys as well as girls into the industry’s trades. After all, the shortage of workers in construction was growing. At about that same time, high school officials were trying to figure out how to improve their Career Construction Academy, a program that had been in place since 2005 but was floundering.

Smith and Roehrig, both Fond du Lac natives, spearheaded a local program – the ACE (Architecture, Construction, Engineering) Academy for students at Fond du Lac High School. Together they met with the school administrator, school board, technical education instructor and 40 other area construction businesses they convinced to get involved. As a group, they took ACE Academy from an idea to a reality.

The upgraded version of the program includes a brand new 5,700-square-foot addition built onto the school for hands-on activities in the construction trades.
“It’s quite a contrast from what we had in the previous program, where hands-on projects were performed in a 300-square-foot space within the classroom/shop,” said Vern Widmer, Tech Education and ACE Academy Instructor. “What we have now is more like the size of a gymnasium with various mock-ups that simulate different construction tasks. Students are able to actually do wiring in one mock-up area of the building, plumbing work in another, and build a house structure in another. They are doing the kind of work they’d actually be doing at a job site.”

Their teacher isn’t the only one teaching them, either. Representatives from various businesses involved in ACE are invited as “guest teachers” in the new hands-on classroom. They arrive to teach their particular trade — whether it’s electrical work, masonry, plumbing, roofing or home building. They oversee students actually doing the work in the mock-up area. They may also initiate a field trip for students, be a guest speaker, or offer job shadowing and internship opportunities.

According to Widmer, ACE Academy credits will, in time, transfer to technical schools as dual credit. “We’re working on that with Moraine Park Technical College.”
“The new ACE Academy ultimately gives students the tools they need to enter the industry,” said Dr. James Sebert, administrator of the Fond du Lac School District. “There is an incredible need to get kids interested in these types of positions due to the shortage of workers.”

The $1.1 million dollar cost of the ACE Academy addition was equally divided between the businesses and the school, a fact that further illustrates the partnership between the two.
“A few other school districts in Wisconsin have programs like this,” Sebert said. “What we think sets ours apart, though, is the vast number of businesses involved in the project and in the curriculum, actually doing some of the teaching. The program allows our students to use cutting-edge equipment and learn directly from people in the field, in addition to their teacher.”
An increase in women entering the construction industry has been occurring in recent years, according to Smith, who encourages girls to join the ACE Academy. He recalled a bus trip where he accompanied 44 ACE students to a construction site C.D. Smith was building for Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation in Madison. “We pointed out three female ironworkers on site,” Smith said. “Five years ago, I don’t think you would have seen any.”

“More and more, women are getting involved in the construction business for a variety of reasons,” Smith said. “Maybe they love to be part of a team that sees what their work has created or feel they are just as good performing the same jobs men do. I think many enjoy the physical challenge. Whatever the reason, the industry is benefitting from their involvement.”

Tori Schmidt, a sophomore at Fond du Lac High School, says she joined the ACE program because she is interested in home construction and the carpentry trade as a career. “I’ve had some experience helping my grandpa who is building a house for my great aunt,” Schmidt said. “I find it very interesting and similar to the process of our new ACE building going up. Carpentry or the home-building business is a trade that will never go away. There will always be a need to build houses. It’s a job that can’t be shipped overseas.” Ten years from now, Tori hopes she will be immersed in a hands-on job she loves – one that includes teamwork “to build something really amazing.”

Another ACE student, Madison Kirsch, a junior, says she joined after meeting with people that lead the ACE program. “They encouraged us to join. They are looking for workers – especially for more girls to get into the industry.” Kirsch wants to work as an electrician. “One of the electrical businesses was giving a presentation to our class, and he really sold me on the profession – even though I had been thinking of it before that.” Kirsch plans to further her education in the electrical area but isn’t sure what route she’ll take – tech school, an apprenticeship or college. She envisions herself in a management role in the future. “I’d start out as an electrician, and then work myself up the ladder to project manager where I’d oversee and make sure everything is done right.”

Widmer explains that 16 skilled trades form the core of the ACE Academy curriculum and hands-on activities. They include Carpentry, Electrical, Operating Engineers, Masonry, Steel/Iron Worker, Residential, Plumbing, HVAC, Concrete, Sealing and Coating, Roofing, Energy, Flooring, Welding, Landscaping (paving retaining walls), and Sheet Metal. In addition, training is available for students interested as Architects, Engineers, Estimators, Project Managers, and Safety Directors.

Education beyond high school for the trades can come in different ways, and it’s not necessarily a four-year college degree. “With the abundance of students who don’t go on to college, it’s very important we help the instructors bring the level of students to the caliber that employers want to see when they enter the market,” Roehrig said. “The ability to use journeymen/experts to teach in the classroom is a vital part of the success in the ACE program.”

Roehrig, who helped launch the ACE program and remains on committees to maintain and grow its success, says the best thing about the program is the interaction between the students and the companies in the field. “Already we have companies grabbing students as future employees because they know how valuable they are. It’s a win-win for the businesses and for the students.”
Widmer credits Bob Roehrig and Pat Smith for their dedication to the ACE project. “They have both been instrumental in the conception of the project and seeing it become a reality,” Widmer said. “Their fingerprints will be forever etched in every facet of the ACE Academy.”

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