Paul Robinson founded ConstructReach in 2018 to create events and a social network for educating young people, teachers, and parents about opportunities in construction. The St. Louis-based workforce development organization also helps employers become more proactive with recruitment by presenting career paths, developing curricula, and connecting with future interns and new employees.
Among its outreach efforts is “I Built This,” a collaboration with Target that includes events providing hands-on experience and tours of construction sites at the retailer’s remodels and new builds.
Paul Robinson and his wife, Ebony, who is ConstructReach’s director of community relations and business development, talk about how their organization helps employers “re-posture” and show students that the construction industry needs them and could be a good employment fit.
Bridging the Gap in the Construction Labor Force
Pro Builder: Our readers are dealing with a chronic skilled labor shortage and contending with an aging construction workforce. How can ConstructReach help bridge that gap for builders and contractors looking to hire young people or to fill that skilled labor pipeline?
Paul Robinson: One unique thing about ConstructReach is we understand the perspective that a lot of young people have about the industry. Sometimes it’s a limited perspective about the different career pathways one can take, but there’s also often [a pre-existing] negative connotation about the construction industry—that it may not be for them.
I Built This takes their perspective into account and we use events to re-posture the industry. It’s not just introducing young people to different career pathways but also connecting with them by understanding where they’re coming from and being able to relate to them and create an experience that’s relevant for them. So … they are not only learning about the industry at large but are participating in hands-on activities. It also introduces them to different career pathways within the industry that they probably didn’t know about prior to coming [to the event]. We create a memorable experience for them.
Ebony Robinson: But we’re also consolidating efforts. Maybe those [general contractors] or home builder associations haven’t found the right niche. ConstructReach aims to be a facilitator. We can help you reach educators in our network and we have national efforts with organizations to help facilitate and make those opportunities available to counselors and instructors. We also work to let general contractors know when educators may not have all of the [required] information available to give to a student. We can do brown bags and host events on our social network after I Built This events to make sure those relationships are still thriving between general contractors and educators.
“We began to get a lot of positive feedback because we’re [engaged] in ongoing dialogue and are establishing working relationships with those stakeholders; with educators who see themselves a lot of times as the gatekeepers.” —Paul Robinson
PB: How did this initiative get started?
PR: I was a project manager for Target for about six or seven years and began to do more things in my community to be a tangible example and to [become involved with] more community development initiatives. When we started ConstructReach, it was pretty much a culmination of some of the efforts already taking place.
We created an event called “I Built This” at a live construction site that has become like our flagship event where we can re-posture the construction industry because we’re introducing it in a different light. We’re also working with industry partners to put on this event in a way that engages them and exposes them to different opportunities. But it also creates a professional context where networking can take place and people can share their journeys about how they got to where they are. Then, actually having actionable steps puts them in a position to identify what to do going forward after the event. So the event itself, and [the process of] creating the event, allows it to be a springboard for moving forward.
PB: So you’re not just parachuting into a city and then you’re gone after the event? How do students—as well as employers—interested in following up and learning more, tap into this resource?
ER: A lot of times, when you think about that resource and that bridge of accessibility—not just with the educator, but with the parent, as well as the student—it happens based on relationships. I’ve been able to do that throughout my career; finding ways to create great opportunities for the next generation.
PB: You’ve had events recently in Chicago and Minneapolis. What other stops are you making in the near future?
ER: Stay tuned because there’s a lot in the works right now. Of course we want to be in our hometown of St. Louis. We want to look at the Southeast market. Once again, we had great success when we kicked off our national initiative into 2019, so we want to get reengaged. As you think about this hybrid of on-site event and virtual experience, we’re now getting ready to shift back to in-classroom learning. What we found in Chicago with the hybrid approach is that virtual content is a value-add because we can reach out to school districts that are far away from the event but still may be interested in those opportunities as well.
PB: You’ve said that, if approached right, construction and relationships can repair a community. Can you elaborate?
PR: Construction is one of the few industries that has so many different correlations to everyday life. We exist because of a need to address the under-representation of minorities within the construction industry, and when you think about where we are as a society, we’re seeing that we can no longer compartmentalize what happens in the workplace and what happens in our societies at large, and the construction industry is unique in that foundations matter. It matters what you build on. That’s just speaking from a construction standpoint, but that translates to life as well. Then, when you think about how construction takes place, where there are so many different partners, there are so many different subcontractors—electricians, plumbers, HVAC—that play a role in the construction and completion of any space or facility.
You have all of these people who are gifted in different areas, and those areas play a key role in making a building. Everybody has something to offer. Nobody has everything, which keeps us in constant need of one another. So, we are designed for community. We are built to collaborate and work together, and construction has a lot of overlap into life in general. It’s not about what we build, it’s how we build because construction takes place in plain view, in front of society and in the context of community. You see it happening all of the time, whether it’s a detour sign or a high- rise building going up. It’s taking place right in front of you. So it’s talking to the industry [prospects] and letting them know that, hey, we have a key role to play because this isn’t just an industry where you can have a successful career, it’s an industry that’s also a huge economic indicator and is one that really should be leaning into the progress we need to make in terms of equity and diversity and representation.
It’s about being intentional about how we build and making it a community effort. And it’s about bringing visibility to that because the industry is in need of younger, more diverse, fresh talent. We need to be more intentional and more thoughtful about how we engage the community and how we pull in other partners and collaborate as we build something. And that has the…