August 23, 2006 - Last year, 48 students enrolled in the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association's construction trade school. Now, as the group nears its September graduation, only 14 students remain in the program.
According to instructor Les Wolf, the high rate of dropouts isn't necessarily bad if it means that the program only graduates those who are motivated and hard working enough to succeed.
He said past programs similar to this trade school have lost the industry's trust by graduating people who later couldn't cut it on the job site.
"We really concentrate on the quality of the people we put in this industry," Wolf said.
SABHA Vice President Roger Yohem said the attrition rate is similar to the rate of people who drop out after a year working a construction job. According to Wolf, more than half of the 34 students who are no longer with the program left to start jobs in construction.
In addition to attending two, 3-hour classes a week, the students are required to work 40 hours a week for minimum wage on construction sites, which rotate every six weeks, depending on which facet of the field the students are studying.
Wolf said some students left the program so they could stay in a field that interested them instead of rotating onto something else.
Stephanie Renshaw, one of the remaining students, sees a different reason for the large number of dropouts. She said some simply weren't ready to put in the work required to get through the program.
"The first thing Les said was, 'This isn't going to be an easy trip,'" she said. "Five people got up and left right then."
Wolf owns a Tucson contracting firm. He has more than 35 years of experience in construction and another 10 years teaching at Pima County Community College.
The class is paid for entirely by private industry donors. Wolf said this allows him to remain free of any meddling or tweaking that comes with accepting outside funding.
The entire curriculum was designed by Wolf and approved by SAHBA. It includes a six-week trial in a number of different construction fields, each with a heavy dose of ethics training. Wolf believes that in the short time he is given with the students, he can do more to make sure they are properly motivated and ethical than he can to make them experts in any one field.
To enroll in the class, students had to agree not to miss more than three sessions, not to be late more than three times and to submit to random drug tests.
By now, Wolf said, the hard part is mostly over. The 14 remaining students have all shown themselves to be motivated enough to pass the class. In these final weeks they have each met with the instructor to go over performance reviews submitted by each of their employers from the past year.
The students came to the class from a wide range of circumstances. Although some are 19-year-olds from low-income backgrounds going to this class instead of college, not all fit that description.
Steve Weber, 53, collects a pension from his first job and seems to consider this to be something between a retirement hobby and a second career.
"People think I'm crazy," he said.
The trade school opened last year to help with the shortage of industry workers in the Tucson area. Yohmen estimates that there is shortage of 5,000 people, so this year's graduating class won't solve the problem.
"The number (of graduates) won't be large," he said, "but it's a step in the right direction. We had to do something."