The song says "Mama, don't let your baby grow up to be a cowboy," but apparently moms don't want their children to be construction workers either, according to studies. As a result, the building trades often have trouble attracting young people to the construction industry.

But the sponsors of a new middle school outreach program in the Cincinnati area aim to change mothers' and students' minds alike with the help of a video showing 'Extreme Makeover' carpenter John Littlefield extolling the benefits of the field.

“We were looking to find some way for the kids to reach their mothers,” said Sherry Kelley Marshall, president and CEO of the Southwest Ohio Region Workforce Investment Board. “'Extreme Makeover' has a huge female following.”

That video is just one piece of an arsenal called “Building Your Future,” a curriculum developed by former Drees Homes employee Anne Mitchell. Funded with a two-year grant sponsored by Ohio’s The Spirit of Construction Foundation, the "Building Your Future" program educates middle school students about the merits of construction trades and encourages them to stay in school and master higher math and science skills.

The grant was created after studies showed that students are deciding in middle school, not high school, whether they are going to be able to attend college. Similarly, those who think they won't be going to college are more likely to drop out of high school because they see the coursework as irrelevant to their lives.

Those findings have relevance to builders because construction trades often have trouble finding workers, particularly for jobs that require higher math and science skills. “We had construction company people who were saying to us that we have got to keep these kids in school and make them interested,” said Marshall, of the Regional Workforce Investment Board, which worked with The Spirit of Construction Foundation to establish the grant.

Marshall also said she and the foundation members also they felt a need to communicate better with parents about alternatives to college. Surveys indicate that parents--not surprisingly--aren't realistic in their expectations for their children. While most parents, especially mothers, expect their children to go to college, the percentage of students who actually attend college is closer to 20%.

So last March, the foundation hired Mitchell to develop a curriculum that would reach middle school students and their mothers to show that working in the construction trades is a viable career for which it's worth staying in school.

By summer Mitchell had assembled a curriculum that included the John Littlefield video, where he explains how he wanted to be an actor, but his parents insisted he learn a second career, carpentry.

“He tells them that he enjoys his work because he builds things that last and gets to do things that change people's lives on 'Extreme Makeover,'” Mitchell said. And, just to keep the boys interested, the video--less than one minute in--shows a house being blown up on the show.

In addition to the 'Extreme Makeover' video, Mitchell also shows another presentation aimed at girls. This video introduces Rosie’s Girls, a program that offers summer day camps that introduce girls to fields such as carpentry, which traditionally have not been promoted to girls.

A third video created for the program shows an apprentice at a local concrete company talking about how he loves to drive by the parking lots he’s built to admire the work he’s done as part of a team. “He’s a kid not much older than them, probably the age of a big brother, and he’s excited about what he’s doing and he’s very articulate about it,” Mitchell said.

In addition to the videos, Mitchell asks the students what they like to do and then explains how many of the skills they develop doing things they enjoy can be used to earn a good living. For instance, she tells them that joy sticks are often used to control heavy equipment, that climbing skills are helpful for roofers and other construction workers, and that drawing is a skill used by architects and builders. She also talks about wages in real numbers, showing that the pay can be good for skilled construction trade workers.

Mitchell also tries to communicate the intangible rewards of the industry. Previously, Mitchell worked at Drees Homes,  where she wrote the company’s history after interviewing its founders and saw how the family valued its work. “The one thing that kept coming out again and again is how proud they are of what they build, that they take grandkids out to show them neighborhoods they’ve built,” said Mitchell. “It’s that legacy piece of construction that people don’t necessarily know about.”

Peter Strange, CEO of Messer Construction in Cincinnati and a major proponent of the grant's work, said he hopes the program will help re-value skilled trades in the minds of parents and their children. Building a new generation of skilled trade workers is imperative for the building profession, according to Messer.

“We can’t be static or passive about this and expect that somehow this problem is going to resolve itself,” said Messer. “We have got to start treating these schools like they are one more piece of our supply chain and find paths to improve the supply chain.”

Teresa Burney is a senior editor with BUILDER and BIG BUILDER magazines. 

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Cincinnati, OH.