At Harris County High, Students Are Excited about a Recently Resurrected Construction Program
When Jim Steel joined the faculty of Harris County High School in 2018, he faced a considerable challenge: Revive a construction program that had been dormant so long, “My students and I spent the first three or four weeks just cleaning the shop and throwing things away and getting organized.”
Today the program, a partner in CEFGA’s K12 Pipeline, is thriving as an ever-increasing number of male and female students are learning hands-on skills and putting them into practice in regional and state competitions.
In just its second year under Steel (pictured at right), Harris County’s SkillsUSA Team dominated its regional construction competition with first-place finishes in Plumbing, Electrical, Carpentry, Masonry and Welding, and a runner-up in Cabinet Making.
Those achievements qualified Steel’s team for the 2020 SkillsUSA State Championships before COVID-19 forced the event’s cancellation. It was replaced with the SkillsUSA Georgia Virtual Championships, a combination of online exams, digital portfolio submissions and “virtual contests” that concluded in early May.
Harris County made the best of that opportunity as well, logging three first-place finishes (Construction Technology, Carpentry and Electrical), second place in Masonry and third in Plumbing, Construction Math and Welding.
Steel was no stranger to building a high school construction program from the ground up. He previously started programs in Crisp County and Lee County before reviving the one at HCHS, where the shop had been collecting dust for the better part of a decade.
“When I walked in the door,” he recalls, “it had basically turned into, whatever they didn’t know what to do with, they put it in there.”
Located in Hamilton, some 80 miles south of Atlanta, Harris County High was able to relaunch its construction program thanks to the CONNECT (Creating Opportunities Needed Now to Expand Credentialed Training) Act. This 2018 legislation was created with significant input from AGC Georgia, led by Executive Director Mike Dunham; Dr. Barbara Wall, CTAE Director for the Georgia Department of Education; Rep. Terry England (Chairman of House Appropriations); Rep. Robert Dickey; Sen. Ellis Black; and Sen. Lindsey Tippins.
The Act has resulted in $1 million in additional equipment funding for essential skilled trade programs, such as the one in Hamilton. The funding to relaunch the HCHS program was approved by a committee comprised of GaDOE, AGC Georgia and CEFGA leadership.
Harris County also got a big boost from donations by local and regional industry partners, including Brassfield & Gorrie, Metro Power, Batson-Cook, Bass Electrical and Ferguson Plumbing. Metro Power hosted the students for a tutorial on conduit bending, and C.C. Owen Tile Co. paid a visit to teach on tile setting. A trailer, outfitted with a donated decal from Sunshine Banners in nearby Columbus, accommodates tools and supplies, and enables the students to assist in county projects such as disaster relief.
“I just tell [the students], ‘Here’s our goal, here’s our plan, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get there,” Steel says. “I was fortunate in that I had a real good core of freshmen and a couple of sophomores who wanted to do it, and we just took it from there and kept encouraging them. My goal this year was to get more girls in the program, and second semester I had eleven girls in the first-level class, which is about eight more than we might normally see.”
Though not everyone will choose to follow a construction career path, Steel emphasizes the lifelong value of the skills he’s teaching, telling his students, “You’re going to use them the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter if you’re going into the construction trades or not – all of us are going to own a home or have a home of some sort, and it’s a whole lot cheaper to fix it yourself than to have somebody else do it.”
And for those who do want to pursue a career, the opportunities are widespread and numerous. “Especially right now,” Steel says. “Who’s working? The construction trades. That’s where people are making money.”
In addition to bringing excitement to the classroom, Steel offers an inside look at the program via his Instagram account, @Harris.Construction, where he keeps followers apprised of projects and celebrates his students and their successes. (See gallery below for examples from the account.)
Considering what they’ve already accomplished in such a short time, there will be plenty more success to come.
“The goal,” Steel says, “is to get the students doing what they like to do and having fun, let them get the pats on the back, let them see their names hanging up on banners – let them see that they can do lots of things when they get that little bit of push [from teachers and mentors]. I’ve been in this game long enough; I don’t need the recognition. My recognition comes when my students do well.”