Newly framed walls covered with sheathing are coming together on the Vincennes University Jasper campus.
The walls already have plumbing, electrical service wires, windows and doors added but no water or electricity will ever flow through those lines and very little weather will ever touch these mocked up homes that are being built in a classroom.
This is where a group of about 20 high school students has been learning how to build a home. It’s a safe place to make mistakes and develop the needed skills to build an actual home especially since the first home they will build will carry significant meaning for a family in Dubois County.
Partnership leads to expanding opportunities
The class is the reinvigoration of the construction trades in Dubois County through a collaboration between the Patoka Valley Career & Technical Cooperative and VUJ. “It simply came out of a need from the Dubois County Builders Association,” said Patoka Valley director Jarred Howard. “They’re struggling to find employees.”
They came to Howard with a partnership proposal; if he would start the class and find students, the builders association would provide an instructor.
Howard agreed and through a partnership with VUJ a space for the new class was made available — that partnership has also led to other career-oriented co-op courses being moved to the campus including Future Health Professionals (formerly HOSA) as well as automation robotics.
For CTIM Director Jacob Berg, the collaboration between VUJ and the co-op is a win-win. His goal is to move VUJ into the role of an educational hub for the region.
“I feel like the stars are aligned. I’m in the right place at the right time,” Berg, who took over as director at CTIM about two years ago, said. “We’ve got an awesome team. And it’s not just VUJ; it’s Patoka Valley; it’s our four school superintendents in Dubois County — they’re in this building, you know, once a week, sometimes more often; it’s our industry partners as well.”
Through those partnerships, the college has started to move into that central spot for educational opportunities. Back in 2018, the college had five high school students on campus; this year, they are expecting 165 from the four Dubois County school corporations, Heritage Hills and Pike Central.
“And that is a low number,” Berg added. “I fully expect to exceed that number.”
Howard agreed that the co-op’s adding new programs like an aviation program coming next semester has increased the number of students interested in taking part in the co-op’s offerings. “That is a VU program and just from presentations, we have more than 20 students wanting to take te course this year,” he said.
The co-op serves ten school corporations in the Patoka Valley and has about 550 students enrolled in co-op courses. As the partnership grows, Howard already knows those numbers are going up.
Berg explained the partnership benefits VUJ by introducing students to the local campus as well as providing dual-credits, or credits with the college that could apply to one of the college’s degree programs. Additionally, by working with local employers in those trades or industries, the students are being introduced to employment opportunities as well as on the job experience in their back yards.
“Just exposing them to what opportunities are available here and also giving those companies exposure to potential employees is important to building relationships,” Berg said.
Students in the robotics courses are offered internships at several local manufacturers while students in the construction trades program are working with local contractors and construction companies.
“Those contractors will have an opportunity to hire these students this spring,” Howard added.
That exposure to potential employees is important because companies are having a hard time filling open jobs.
Depending on how the construction trade program expands, students could earn up to 25 credits as well. “Then, they’re only five credits short of a 30-credit certificate,” said Berg. “Students can also continue to VU to complete a degree if they want.
“We are really filling a need,” Berg added.
Howard attributes the growth of the co-op to the partnerships in the community between the employers, his office and VUJ. If a local employer contacts him with a need, he can get VUJ Dean Christian Blome or Berg on the phone and begin the process to address that need.
“Building what we have here has been one of the most satisfying things that I’ve ever done professionally,” Howard said.
Luke Nordhoff, co-owner of LAN Construction who also has a degree in construction technology through VU, volunteered to lead the new construction trades class, a task that requires him to be involved four to five days a week. “I don’t know how he does it,” Berg and Howard both admitted.
Nordhoff hosts his class at the CTIM building on campus. Through donations and collaborations with local suppliers and contractors, he’s filled the room with the necessary tools and construction materials to teach students anything from basic skills like reading a tape measure to installing plumbing for a new vanity in one of the several labs he’s created.
Nordhoff went through a previous iteration of the building trades program when he attended Jasper High School. He started his business in 2007 and recently expanded by purchasing Lechner’s Excavating. He deals with a common problem plaguing most local employers.
“Like all the other contractors in the area, I’m searching for employees and can’t find any,” he explained.
When Howard showed up at a Builders Association meeting about the construction trades program, Nordhoff decided to get involved. “We haven’t been very good about getting the younger generation interested in construction,” he admitted.
“It was one of those either put up or shut up kind of things so here I am,” he laughed.
He wants students to understand they can make a good living in construction.
Working around his schedule, Nordhoff is in the classroom with kids one to two days a week. It’s been a learning process for him as he shifts from the owner of a construction company to attempting to teach 20 students construction trades.
“I was more nervous about my first day of class than probably a lot of things I do in business,” Nordhoff said adding that he went through three days of lesson plans in the first class because he was talking so quickly.
But he’s shifted into the teacher role successfully since then.
Students spent the first three weeks of class with Nordhoff every day. Those early lessons were designed to teach some basic skills like identifying tools and learning about safety. “They had to pass a safety test before they were allowed to do anything,” he explained. “Yeah, having 21 kids in here swinging a hammer without any training, not a good thing.”
After getting these basic skills down, the students built the shelves that now hold all of their construction tools and also constructed the mock construction labs.
“This year, students are learning general contracting skills in the classroom and more specific skills when they intern with local contractors,” Nordhoff said.
He also hopes those internships turn into students sticking around the area after graduating. “If they want them, the jobs and opportunities are here,” Nordhoff said.
While Nordhoff helped launch the program and will finish this semester as its instructor, VUJ plans on hiring an instructor for next semester allowing him to concentrate on his growing business. His plan is to assist in the transition as the juniors in his class will begin construction on an important home.
Building a significant home
Habitat for Humanity of Dubois County partners with families in the community to provide a route to homeownership and security. Homeowner partners help build their homes and complete “sweat-equity” hours with the organization as part of the partnership. They also organize volunteers to build their home with a construction manager.
This is the organization’s 25th year working in Dubois County and it is marked by a significant partnership. Eight juniors attending the construction trades program this year will begin construction on the next Habitat for Humanity home during the first semester of their senior year.
Howard explained that partnership came about because he learned about a similar partnership in Martin County. Patoka Valley’s co-op also handles classes in Tell City where a construction trade program there works on a home annually and then sells it, but selling a home is a complication he didn’t want the Dubois County program to take on.
He saw the partnership as a way to streamline the process and impact the community through a nonprofit organization.
Howard reached out to Jeremy Foxen, the construction manager for the local Habitat for Humanity, to see if there was any interest in the potential partnership. Foxen saw the partnership as a great opportunity for the students to gain construction skills as well as help accomplish Habitat’s goal of providing affordable homeownership for families in the county.
“I am excited. It will be good for the kids,” Foxen said.
Foxen has been working with Habitat for about five years. The Jasper Street Department employee said this is a way he can help people with the construction skills he’s acquired over the years. “I enjoy helping people and building,” he explained. “This is something I feel God has led me to do.”
Howard added that he felt it would be good to introduce the students to some of the hidden needs in our community. “I could see us bringing in a spokesperson to talk to the students about the needs in the community and who they are actually impacting,” he said.
Students will start building the new home in August. They will report to the property and work for about two hours a day, five days a week. Their work will be coordinated through Foxen and the construction instructor.
Community volunteers will then come in on the weekends to work with Foxen. He feels that the students’ work will alleviate some of the load on those volunteers and instead of working 10 to 12 hours on Saturdays, they will only have to work four to six hours to keep the construction project on schedule.
With the partnership, Habitat for Humanity sees an opportunity for greater impact in the community. Over the past 25 years, the organization has been able to build 17 homes, but through this partnership, the organization plans on breaking ground on two homes in 2021.
Nordhoff sees it as a great way for the construction trades program to make an impact as well.
“I think it is great for the students,” Nordhoff said. “They are getting to build a home and they are getting to help out a family in the community.”
Habitat for Humanity is currently taking applications for new homeowner partners. Details here.