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  • James Carr and Ethan Greavu

Budding CACTUS Program Teaches Kids about Construction Careers

Madison Park Middle School in Phoenix has piloted an afterschool program called CACTUS — careers in architecture and construction uplifting students — that teaches kids construction skills and about careers in construction.

“What I like about the program is we get to use tools that we don’t normally get to use. We also learn how to use those tools,” said 12-year-old Cadacius Star, who first enrolled in the program in 2018 and continues in it because of the fun experience. "It's always hands on. Also, it gets you ready for different jobs. For me, I want to be someone who could build buildings."

The perception that construction jobs are not good careers has driven young people away from the field, said Ken Simonson, an economist at the Associated General Contractors of America.

“That’s been a huge challenge for decades,” Simonson said. “I would say as early as the 1970s schools started abandoning vocational career education, and high school students were being pushed by parents and guidance counselors to go to college if at all possible.”

The CACTUS program was pioneered by Scott Holcomb, a school board member who brought it to Madison Park Middle to pilot the program. Holcomb has been on the Madison School Board for 15 years and currently works in construction law, with a history in the trades.

Holcomb said the idea came from attending an Alliance for Construction Excellence meeting about the workforce shortage and the need for more programs in high schools.

“I responded that you are right about getting to the kids, but you are wrong about waiting until high school,” Holcomb said. “Because if you wait until high school, it's too late because people choose high schools based on the curriculum. Second, they have neither the time nor the money to do it, competing with the rest of the curriculum. The other thing is they don’t have the expertise; the industry needs to do it.”

CACTUS came to the rescue. The program just finished its third semester. Jason Bruso, a CACTUS program faculty member and teacher, said, “Every day I see kids gaining more experience and ability. In the beginning, they could barely paint a straight line,” he said. “After a couple activities, they are painting a little more skillfully, and are using power tools.”

The students are learning about a multitude of trades like carpentry, architecture, electrical, plumbing, roofing, and painting, Bruso said. Beyond that, the students are taught by professionals who come into the program as mentors about how these skills can lead to a career after high school.

To read the rest of this article, you are invited to purchase the digital issue here.

This article originally appeared in the Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, July/Aug 2019 issue, Vol. 8, No.4. The Arizona Contractor & Community magazine is a bi-monthly publication.

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