SMC Construction Trades program offers hands-on alternatives to students

Published 1:00 pm Friday, March 1, 2019

Southwestern Michigan College’s Larry Wilson is a man with a vision.

As he showed off a small, unfinished modular-style building on the edge of the college’s campus, he saw past the barren walls and exposed insulation and wiring. Instead, he envisionerd a home.

“You’re now standing in the master bedroom, which just so happens to be the only bedroom,” he said as he moved through the 504 square-foot building. “This would be the living area. That the bathroom, and shower would go right there.”

The space is smaller than a two-car garage, but that doesn’t stop Wilson, 66, of Niles, from seeing life in the area, complete with kitchen cabinets that do not yet exist in the building.

Having worked in the construction business for more than 40 years, Wilson has cultivated that vision over the course of decades. Now his mission is to pass on his vision to the next generation, which he is doing through a curriculum that includes letting students design and build the very building in which he is standing.

“It’s amazing what you can fit inside a small space,” he said, a grin of pride creeping over his face. “And this was all designed by students.”

Wilson is the head of SMC’s Construction Trades Green Technology program, a two-year degree program designed to provide students with the theoretical and applied knowledge necessary to gain employment in the construction industry. SMC offers both an associate in applied science and a certificate in Construction Trades Green Technology. With the program, SMC is one of only seven schools in the country to offer the Certified Green Professional exam.

For Wilson, the program offers students a different track from a traditional four-year degree and the chance to have a fulfilling, hands-on career.

“Everyone told their kids to be doctors and lawyers and CPAs and forgot that somebody needed to fix your toilets and build your houses,” Wilson said. “You can make some pretty good money fixing people’s toilets and houses. That’s why this is all worthwhile.”

The curriculum

The program, which is focused on green building and making structures energy efficient, is built in three phases: the certificate phase, the associate degree phase and the bachelor’s degree phase, according to SMC recruitment materials.

In the first phase, which Wilson describes as “learning how the sticks go together,” is hands-on and will qualify students for jobs as general construction workers. Students spend a year learning construction techniques, blueprint reading and construction math. From there, the students apply their skills in the community by building structures, such as the modular currently on SMC’s campus, for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity or the Boy Scouts of America.

“We try to do community-minded things,” Wilson said. “We don’t try to take jobs away from construction workers.”

The second phase of the program involves earning an associate’s degree in applied science through the Construction Trades Green Technology program, which will qualify students for jobs as contractors, safety inspectors or crew leaders. During this phase, students learn the science behind construction techniques and the business aspects of construction.

The third phase of the program is optional and involves students transferring to Ferris State University or another four-year college for a bachelor of science in construction management, which will further prepare students for commercial work as superintendents, project managers and project engineers.

Over the more than a decade that the program has been running at SMC, more than 120 students have successfully graduated from the program, by Wilson’s estimate.

Though some would not think that a degree was necessary for construction work, Wilson said the SMC program allows students to hone their skills and qualifies them for advanced work.

“They aren’t just labor,” he said. “They are capable of being job site crew leaders. One of my students came to me right before graduation with an offer letter from a construction company to be a project manager. The number on that page was bigger than my pay. … I’ve got graduates running multimillion-dollar projects right now.”

Success stories

In the fall of 2016, Carlyn McClelland, 38, of Elkhart, was looking for a change.

A former probation officer, she said she knew that she could not see herself sitting behind a desk as part of her career any longer. She also happened to be living in a 100-year-old house that needed repairs, which is why when she learned of the construction program at SMC, she decided to give it a try.

“I went back to school as a mom just looking to learn how to fix her house, and they gave me dreams,” she said. “They turned what I thought was going to be a hobby into a career. It has really shaped me into the person that I am today.”

McClelland is just one of many success stories to have graduated from the SMC construction program — off the top of his head, Wilson can name nearly 10 that make more in a year than the average salary of a doctor or a lawyer.

McClelland graduated from the program in May 2018, and upon her graduation was working for the college. She said she found the program helped her to discover her passion and calling, adding that she wished she had known about a similar program when she went to college for the first time in the early 2000s.

“I’m glad that there is so much emphasis being put on the skilled trades right now because that is where it needs to be,” she said. “This is a course of study that will pay students a living wage without sending them into a lifetime of debt to get there. These are life skills, and even if you are never going to into the industry, no one can ever take that away from you.”

Another student success story can be found in Victoria Knight, 23, of Niles. She began her college journey at the University of Saint Francis, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, studying nursing. After racking up a bill of $30,000, Knight returned home to decide what she wanted to do with her life. It was then when she stumbled upon the SMC program description online, and every class seemed like something she wanted to do.

“I wished I had been doing this all along,” she said. “There are endless opportunities.”

Now that Knight has graduated from the program, she is working on her bachelor’s degree at Ferris State University and is working on several projects including being Century 21 affiliated in real estate, working with Edwardsburg-based business Carmi Creations and working her own business, Resfeber Restorations.

Both Knight and McClelland said they were grateful to the SMC Construction Trades Green Technology program and to Wilson for mentoring them along the way.

“He’s teaching things in a different way,” McClelland said of Wilson. “When I went to Michigan State [University], I was just one face in a sea of 50,000 other graduate students. At SMC, my instructors knew who I was. They cared about my performance in the class, and they were really willing to talk to me about the things that made me who I was.”

“[The program] prepared me for everything,” Knight added. “It’s not just the classes that I sat through, but the relationship Larry gained with his students. I know that even today, I could call him and he would help me. All the instructors are knowledgeable beyond belief, and it was very beneficial. They made it so that you really wanted to be there.”

The love of teaching

Seeing students like Knight and McClelland succeed is what makes Wilson’s job as a SMC instructor fulfilling.

“They get here that first Tuesday after Labor Day and some don’t even know where the on/off switch on a camera is,” he said. “They walk out of here the first Saturday in May two years later with a degree, and that’s just great to see.”

Going forward, Wilson said he expects to continue to see the Construction Trades Green Technology program grow, as more young students realize the opportunities to be had in the program and the money to be made in the construction industry.

Until then, Wilson said he would continue to do what he loves, teach and mentor students.

“My passion has always been construction, and I like to think that spills over to my students,” he said. “I’ve got 40 years of training and knowledge, and now, I get to give that to someone else.”


Photography by Emily Sobecki