As the end of high school approaches, students must make decisions that will directly impact their future. Many plan to attend college to earn a degree. However, there are options available for those who decide the traditional college route is not for them.
Skilled trades such masonry are making a comeback.
These trades can offer young people both a secure and rewarding lifestyle, with training at a lower cost than a four-year degree.
Todd Stayer is the owner of Auburn Concrete Products on South Indiana Avenue. He purchased the business from his father approximately seven years ago. It was established back in the 1950s.
Stayer said the company is always looking to grow its work force. The need for people who can operate equipment such as telescopes and forklifts is high. Tyler Wolfe, the company’s estimator project manager, said “previous experience is preferred, but we will accept anyone for general labor.”
The company has 18 employees, whose experience ranges from two to 25 years. It hires men and women of all ages. While the number of female masons is low, “In fact, we prefer women for some jobs, such as arranging stones. It’s more of an art, and they have a good eye for it,” Stayer said.
Three employees are in the company’s in-house apprenticeship program.
“We usually wait six months or so until he or she is comfortable before we start the apprenticeship. From there, we have them work in between two experienced masons laying and try to keep them there so they can gain experience,” Wolfe said.
The company works mostly in Fort Wayne, Auburn and Angola. Auburn’s recent housing boom is one factor in the rising demand for masons. A record 1,329 building permits were issued in Auburn last year, including a record 102 for new dwelling units.
Auburn Concrete Products works on commercial projects about 90 percent of the time. It also does larger-scale residential projects. The company has won two awards from the National Concrete Masonry Association: one for a house on Clear Lake and the second for a building that is now a Tire Barn.
Masons uses bricks, blocks, concrete and stones to build structures such as walls, walkways, and fences. They stand, kneel and bend for long periods; heavy lifting is also part of the job. Most work outdoors during the year.
“It’s hard to find younger people who want to learn the trade; the job is physically demanding and labor-intensive, so most people today would rather work a desk job instead,” Stayer said. When asked what he believes the biggest benefit is, he said, “Learning a skilled trade – this is something people can take with them, wherever they go.”
The need to replace older generations of masons is a problem now, as they begin to retire, he added.
Most masons have a high school diploma or its equivalent. High school courses such as mathematics, mechanical drawing, visualization and the ability to use measurements, volume and mixing proportions are used every day, especially for mixing mortar for concrete.
Masons learn on the job or through an apprenticeship. Some programs are associated with unions; the program in Auburn is not.
An apprenticeship lasts three to four years; students must complete a required number of hours of technical instruction and paid, on-the-job, training.
Schools such as Ivy Tech Community College offer masonry programs. These can be independent or in connection with apprenticeship training. Often, the credits earned count towards a two-year associate degree.
The estimated growth rate for masonry is 15 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2016 says the median annual wage for masons in Indiana averages between $39,500- $45,900. The pay varies, based on rural and city areas.
“In the past, each school had its own vocational program and was able to recommend students that would be a good fit with our company. We would work together. Now, four schools will draw from a single program, which really limits the number of people who participate and who we can pick from,” Stayer said.
Stayer said he is concerned by “the lack of masonry taught in many high school vocational programs.
“Most vocational programs now focus on HVAC, welding and electrical skills, and they don’t do anything else,” he said. “They forgo masonry completely. It’s frustrating because kids would work summers here and make $10-11 an hour instead of earning minimum wage at McDonald’s.”
Impact Institute in Kendallville, which serves high schools in five area counties, teaches HVAC, welding and electrical skills. “Students in the construction trades program will get some exposure to masonry, but the amount varies based on the year’s project and the materials used for it,” said institute Director Jim Walmsley.
“All instructors at the Impact Institute have nontraditional educational backgrounds. They all started in the trade as young people,” he noted.
The placement rate for students who complete a vocational program remains between 90 to 95 percent, he said. However, three paths are counted as succesful placement: entry into the military, post-secondary education or employment. That’s a promising figure.
“We try to do as much as we can (for our employees) but it’s been tough,” Stayer says.
Auburn Concrete’s Wolfe worked as a mason in the summers during high school and college. He eventually got an education degree, taught for a year, then changed fields to come back to the company.
“We are pushing kids to fail by giving them no alternative other than school,” Stayer said. The need for non college alternatives is clear but access to these can be few and far between. Auburn youth can count themselves lucky to have resources so close to home.