At the start of this school year,  the high school celebrated its brand new, first-of-its-kind, construction technology lab, The Riverview High School Construction Academy, generously funded by members of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange (GCBX). GCBX member businesses support the four-year program by offering students real-life experience, internships and apprenticeships in preparation for construction jobs extended upon graduation from high school or college.The first day started with 60 enthusiastic students and a long waiting list.

The partnership began when GCBX members Chuck Jacobson of Aqua Plumbing and Air and Kent Hayes of Tandem Construction were contacted by the school district about the possibility of starting a construction trades academy at Riverview High School. They immediately thought about involving GCBX and its members. Once the budget for the program was developed, GCBX members with Jon F. Swift Construction as the General Contractor on the project stepped up and donated time and materials for the classroom build-out. Charlene Neal of Neal Communities is a Riverview alumna, so she immediately saw the need in the community and became the lead donor to benefit the industry and the students at her alma mater. 

“There are so many people to thank, not the least of which is Riverview Principal Erin Haughey,” says Mary Dougherty, Executive Director of GCBX. “In all, over 50 GCBX member businesses contributed to make this project such a huge success.”

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

One key reason for the popularity of the course is the instructor, Alex Lichter, who sees his younger self in many of his students. A former construction worker, Lichter was teaching at Suncoast Technical College when he learned about the plans for the program. He immediately reached out to learn more. 

“I wish this program was here when I was in high school because I would have participated in it myself,” he said. “To be able to give this kind of knowledge to a group of kids who were just like me is the greatest gift I could give.”

Compared to a typical shop class in high school which is one period a day, the Riverview program is a 90 minute block class limited to a group of 20 students for safety reasons. Block classes give students time to first learn about the project and then create it. In order to participate, students must give up two elective classes.

“At the end of the day, we want our students to have a career and we want to support them in that,” Principal Haughey says. “College is an avenue. But going right into a career is also an avenue and that can be wonderful as well.”

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

Lichter believes that the need for new construction workers is greater than ever. “For every five people that retire from construction, only two or three people are replacing them,” he says. “Across Florida, an enormous number of construction workers are going to retire within the next couple of years with no one to replace them. Also, there is a lot of need for building and rebuilding in the community right now from hurricane damage.”

After completing the program, learning the trade and graduating high school with certification, students are able to go right into the workforce. Neal Communities will give internships to seniors, providing them a taste of a career with a home-building company. 

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

“For the second part of this school year, our plan is to get kids on job sites and exposed to all the different areas of construction,” says Haughey. “Our end goal is to have our students out in the community working with local companies and giving our program a great reputation. My hope is that this program will one day exist for all high schools.”

“Construction is an art,” Lichter says. “Not only do you have to make something technically correct, but you have to make it look good. Kids are learning as they go along to have an artistic eye.”