Texas Aims High With New Masonry Schools

Words: Dan KamysFebruary 2016

The Texas Masonry Council and the University of Texas at Arlington are partnering to address a masonry worker shortage being felt by many around the country.

By Jim Cook

[caption id="attachment_12060" align="alignnone" width="535"]Student project: The construction of a brick arch Student project: The construction of a brick arch[/caption] In Texas, you either do it big or not at all. So when members of the Texas Masonry Council (TMC) and the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) saw an opportunity to address a looming shortage of masonry workers in the Lone Star State, they didn’t settle for half measures. The university’s division of enterprise development and more than 20 masonry manufacturers and construction companies pooled their resources to launch two masonry schools with plans to expand the program. The new program is ambitious, cramming months of education and training into an eight-week session. Students attend classes eight hours per day, five days per week and leave the program with a 10-hour OSHA certification card and sufficient understanding of brick and concrete masonry unit construction to obtain good-paying jobs as masons. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for masons is around $21.61 per hour. Most companies also offer health benefits and retirement savings plans. Masons will likely be able to find employment wherever life may take them, as job openings in the field are expected to grow by 34 percent during the coming decade – faster than the average growth rate for all professions. “The true value of this program is that it meets employers’ workforce needs and takes individuals without jobs or who are in low-paying jobs and prepares them for higher level work with growth opportunities,” says Bryan Sims, executive director of the University of Arlington’s Division of Enterprise Development.

Investment in the future

Now is a critical time in the Texas masonry industry. Demand for masons is great, as the construction industry is booming, particularly along the I-35 corridor in central Texas. However, a mass exodus in the masonry industry is underway as the majority of current masons are reaching retirement age. The average age of a bricklayer is 45. According to the Texas Masonry Council, depending on company size, contractors throughout the state could hire between 10 and 200 masons each, with a backlog of work ranging from two to 24 months. Bottom line: Texas needs trained masons, right now. [caption id="attachment_12061" align="alignnone" width="535"]Instructor Roman Lopez cleans the brick saw and accompanying saw blades donated to the masonry school by AHI Supply, Diamond Products, and Walsh & Jeter. Instructor Roman Lopez cleans the brick saw and accompanying saw blades donated to the masonry school by AHI Supply, Diamond Products, and Walsh & Jeter.[/caption] Stan McCarthy, Acme Brick senior VP of sales, says that industry leaders see the shortage of masons as a serious threat to the industry. Delays caused by an inadequate workforce could lead to architects and designers turning to other building products to ensure timely completion of projects. Acme Brick donated $50,000 to start the schools. Altogether, contractors and manufacturers from around the state have donated more than $225,000 in materials and cash to get the schools off the ground. McCarthy says industry partners in the masonry schools program see it as a vital investment in their future. “We and other manufacturers understand the need for a labor force to install what we produce,” he says. McCarthy says the industry’s involvement in the new masonry schools goes beyond donating money and supplies. Contractors and other masonry industry professionals frequently visit the classes, suggesting tweaks to the program to make it more relevant to the needs of the industry. Participation by industry officials helped convince the industry to offer a night class in the program to accommodate the needs of working adults. “You have the industry involved, and that’s causing this to evolve in a lot of different ways,” McCarthy says. The new program is expected to produce about 60 to 120 masons each year. Classes started in June and will be offered six times per year. About 10 to 12 students attend each class. The classes are offered at facilities rented by the university in Grand Prairie’s Great Southwest Industrial District and in north Houston. Sims says initial class sizes are smaller than expected, but as more people become aware of the program, enrollment will likely grow. McCarthy said one of the most attractive aspects of the program is UTA’s ability to recruit. McCarthy says he expects to see higher enrollment in the courses as the program becomes better established. The masonry classes are offered in both English and Spanish, as Texas’ diverse workforce necessitates teaching in Spanish to take full advantage of the available labor force. The course costs $2,850 to attend, and scholarships are available. Some employers are even paying for employees to attend the courses. Sims says the UTA’s division of enterprise development operates a number of career training programs to help develop the labor pool for Texas industries. The university will evaluate the masonry program after about three years to determine whether to continue it and if additional capacity is needed. Strategic plans for the program call for classes to expand to sites in Austin, Central Texas and the San Antonio area.

Moving forward

Programs like the masonry schools at the University of Texas are the result of progressive, forward-thinking by industry leaders in Texas. In addition to ensuring an adequate supply of masonry workers, the Texas Masonry Council is advancing the field of masonry in Texas by convincing local governments to adopt ordinances mandating the use of masonry products in building projects. It’s the smart move for the municipalities, as masonry provides a long-lasting, sturdy material that helps properties retain their value over time. Currently, 270 municipalities have adopted ordinances regarding the use of masonry in new construction. “Cities across Texas are concerned about protection from fire, storms, aesthetics, community image, an increased tax base and sustainability,” says Lindsey Stringer, Texas Masonry Council association manager. “City administrators and policymakers realize that masonry construction makes better communities. As the economy continues to improve, masonry requirements adopted by cities will have a huge impact on the entire masonry industry in Texas.” Stringer says the push for ordinance adoption resulted from the Texas Masonry Council’s Masonry Policy Planning Program, which seeks to ensure sustainable growth in the masonry industry. “Unlike any other association, our board of directors is composed of both contractors and manufacturers creating an unmatched balance of cutting-edge ideas keeping our association and industry moving forward,” Stringer says.
Jim Cook is a freelance writer based in Dothan, Ala. He can be reached atjim.cook.is@gmail.com.
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