Arizona electricians help expose middle-schoolers to construction [Interview]

Drive-thru:

  • The Arizona chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association started CACTUS (Careers in Architecture, Construction and Trades Uplifting Students), an after-school club for students in grades 6-8.
  • Local trades professionals helped students build solar-powered dog houses, which were later auctioned off to raise money for the program’s continuation.
  • For the 2018-19 school year, CACTUS hopes to expose students to more aspects of construction and educate parents and students about careers in the industry.

The Arizona chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association is hoping that teaching middle-schoolers how to build solar-powered dog houses will inspire the next generation to consider a construction career.

In January, the association started CACTUS (Careers in Architecture, Construction and Trades Uplifting Students), an after-school program for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Madison Park Middle School in Phoenix.

“We understand we really need to start getting younger children to be aware that there are viable careers out there in construction,” explains Debra Margraf, executive manager at the Arizona chapter of NECA. “They can make a good living for themselves and their family, but we’ve got to get them interested first.”

Eighteen students completed the first program. They learned from local trades professionals and completed four dog houses with rudimentary solar-powered air-conditioning systems. These were auctioned off, along with two partially completed structures, to raise more than $2,300 for the program’s continuation.

Margraf says the organization plans to expand CACTUS this fall and hopes to continue growing the program. She says it wouldn’t have been possible without the many local partnerships that provided materials, time, and other resources.

FUEL recently spoke to Margraf about CACTUS, what’s in store for the new school year, and how others can establish something similar.

FUEL: How was the program received?

Debra Margraf: The parents asked if we were going to continue into the next school year. Our goal is to make this program something that can be used at school.

We are not only showing the kids a career that is hands-on; we are also showing the parents a career opportunity that is out there for their children.

We are not only showing the kids a career that is hands-on; we are also showing the parents a career opportunity that is out there for their children. College is not for everyone. A career in the trades is an alternative option. If one enrolls in an apprenticeship, there are college credits available—but, there is no $40,000 to $50,000 debt when they have completed the program. Also, upon graduation, they are making more than $50,000 per year—depending on the trade—with no debt. So, why not make it an option?

FUEL: What’s the plan for the 2018-19 school year?

DM: We’re really going to try to gear this fall semester to introducing the careers in construction. We’d like each trade to come in and make a presentation to the students, and then have them do a little thing with that trade. Then we’ll build something towards the end of the semester. We think we’re going to build a picnic table because the school can use it. Then, starting next January, we’ll do a big project. We plan to make it a year-round club.

If we can show students many aspects of construction, they might get more interested. We’re going to try to get the carpenters involved and then the electricians and the plumbers and maybe some masonry people to try to show them more aspects of the trade.

FUEL: What do you hope for the future of the program?

DM: We’re just working with one school right now. I refer to it as a “CACTUS in a box”—but our goal is to be able to come up with a product. We’re working on that throughout this year, so that any other school that wanted to do it could take our information. If somebody’s an electrician and has a child at school, they can take this to the school and say, “Hey, can we implement this as an after-school program?”

FUEL: What advice do you have for other organizations wanting to start up a similar program?

DM: First, you have to find the people willing to be the mentors, people in the trades who are willing to volunteer their time to go to the school. You also have to find a teacher at a school who might be interested. We happen to be very lucky because the teacher that we have is also the STEM teacher at the school. He understands construction, so we have a very solid source there.

Also, don’t take on more than what you think you can handle. We are a 501(c)(3), and so we take donations. Our goal is to say, “OK, we already have it here. Here’s the program. Let’s see if we can roll this out.” We want to roll it out to other schools in Arizona, but it could be bigger than Arizona.

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