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Construction Management Apprenticeship Program Offers “Learn It By Doing It” Approach for Aspiring Professionals

Construction management apprenticeship at HCC.

Nick Varela grew up hearing stories about work on a construction site. His dad was an engineer. Both of his grandfathers worked in the construction industry – one as a carpenter and the other as a stone mason. And his uncle owns a construction company. When the time came for Varela to begin thinking about his own career path, construction simply made sense.

“Practically everyone in my family is in this industry,” he said. “Hearing their stories made me want to be part of it too.”

After graduating from Wilde Lake High School, Varela planned to attend Howard Community College (HCC) to pursue an associate degree in construction management. Then his dad showed him an interesting article about a new construction management apprenticeship program offered by the school. He had already been admitted to HCC, but quickly decided to submit a second application; this time for admission into HCC’s construction management apprenticeship program.

“It opened a door for me to take classes, as planned, while gaining some practical, real-world experience that came with a paycheck, all at the same time,” said Varela.

Once accepted into the program, Varela’s first step was to participate in an apprenticeship “boot camp” which provided an overview of the curriculum and a tour of a local construction site. A short while later, classes began, and the coordinators of HCC’s apprenticeship program began scheduling interviews for students with local construction company managers looking to hire. One of the two companies Varela interviewed with was Harkins Builders, a construction management firm headquartered in Columbia and known for its work in multifamily, commercial, and government-based development.

“I was really interested in the diverse work Harkins does,” recalls Varela. “When they offered me a full-time field position, I was very happy. I knew I would learn a lot by working there and having exposure to all aspects of the construction management process.”

As a construction management apprentice, Varela will take classes to earn a total of 34 credits at HCC over a two-year period, while working full-time for Harkins. Together, these experiences will allow him to build core competencies in the construction management field, from safety and field surveying to blueprint reading, material testing, and project closeout procedures. In fulfilling the requirements of the program, Varela will earn a Construction Management Certificate from HCC and will be eligible to take the Certified Construction Manager-in-Training (CMIT) exam.

Instrumental to Varela’s success is the role his supervisor, Drew Dunsten, plays. Dunsten joined Harkins 10 years ago and serves as the lead superintendent for a multi-unit housing community currently under construction in Arlington, Virginia. He is a big advocate of the “learn by doing it” approach.

“Getting hands-on experience while you are in school is so valuable,” expressed Dunsten. “That is why we are proud to be partnering with HCC, and bringing construction management apprentices on board who can learn from us while also supporting our work.”

So far, Varela’s experience in working with Dunsten and the team at Harkins has been extremely well-rounded. He has learned about the scope of work a general contractor is responsible for, what is involved in framing, mechanical, and electrical inspections processes, documentation procedures, and what steps should be taken to ensure all aspects of a project are meeting quality and compliance requirements.

“Being in the field is helping me understand every aspect of a construction manager’s work, and what it takes to be successful in this field,” said Varela. “It’s helping me understand the career path options I can consider, and make some decisions about what the right direction is, for me, long-term.”

Ben Nichols, vice president of construction, government group, for Harkins, says that the company’s partnership with HCC is helping them bring new talent into industry at a critically important time. A report from the U.S. Department of Labor suggests that employment opportunities for construction managers in the state of Maryland will grow by 11 percent between now and 2026.

“The demand for well-trained professionals is continuing to increase in our industry,” said Nichols. “As we contract for new construction projects, we face the threat of labor shortages. So, it is more important than ever before that we create promising opportunities, and groom people into this industry.”

Partnering with HCC has opened a door for the Harkins team to do exactly that.

“The construction management apprenticeship program gives us a great opportunity to recruit young, talented, energetic people like Nick to be part of our team,” said Nichols. “It’s a real win-win.”

HCC’s next construction management apprenticeship cohort will begin studying this June. In the fall, the school will accept applications for those interested in starting the program in June 2021. Applicants must be 18 years of age or older, have earned a high school diploma or GED, be college ready – with demonstrated proficiency in English and math, and have access to reliable transportation. To request more information about the program, send an email to apprentice@howardcc.edu.

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