Knowledge that Changes Lives
Build Smart Institute illuminates paths to fulfilling careers in construction
In 1976, Gary Feazell started F&S Building Innovations, a construction company with both commercial and residential divisions, in Roanoke, Virginia. Five years ago, the management team at F&S Building Innovations started having leadership meetings each Friday, and at every meeting the same issue would arise. Like other construction companies across the country, the business was struggling to find qualified entry-level and skilled workers to meet the demand of projects coming through the door. And the problem only seemed to be getting worse.
“We were finding that as the population of construction workers aged into retirement, they weren’t being replaced,” Feazell says. Part of the reason for this, he notes, is a societal shift over the past few decades toward the belief that everyone had to attend higher education institutions to be successful. “But that path doesn’t work for people who know they want to work with their hands,” Feazell says.
The leaders of F&S Building Innovations knew that the negative preconceptions of a career in the construction industry needed to change. And they saw that there were opportunities for more people to access lucrative careers in an industry that was offering a full spectrum of roles and exciting opportunities. It was at one of their Friday meetings that an idea surfaced: F&S Building Innovations could create its own educational institute for construction careers.
“Many people talk about doing things—but don’t actually do them,” Feazell says. “But our team has a real passion for the industry, and as a business, we had the ability to launch it and keep it running, so we just decided to do it.”
Team of Passionate Industry Leaders
Feazell had a vision for an institute that would foster sustainability and succession within the local, regional and national construction industry. The goal would be to educate and train individuals to become career-ready and to advance within construction occupations.
It was under Feazell’s leadership as CEO and Owner of F&S Building Innovations that the vision for the Build Smart Institute was born. Alongside him is a team of industry leaders who helped him bring his vision to life.
This includes Alicia Smith, the Director of Marketing & Development at F&S Building Innovations and President of the Build Smart Institute, and Tina Rush, the Chief Financial Officer and President of F&S Building Innovations. Smith and Rush split their time overseeing both operations and making sure that each remains sustainable and runs smoothly.
Rob Leonard was hired by the F&S Building Innovations team to begin research and development for the new trade school and was soon named Director of Education at Build Smart Institute. Rob came to the job after a long and winding career in the construction industry. In his youth, he’d worked as a plumber’s apprentice in Vermont, before joining in his uncle’s construction company in Philadelphia. Then, in 1994, he started a construction business in Virginia and eventually teamed up with a design-build company, where he took on a project management role. Then, he invented an advanced building envelope system. In 2014, that system was rolled out nationally, and Leonard started traveling the country to promote it and to advise on the technical product components.
When Leonard received the call in 2018 from F&S Building Innovations, he realized it would fundamentally change his career trajectory.
“I was thrilled,” Leonard says. “This lightning rod went off for me to take up this call and to help develop the school.”
In early 2020, Wesley Cotner was hired full time as Lead Instructor of Build Smart Institute. Cotner worked as a public school teacher for 10 years before embarking on a 25-year career in the construction industry. Working for Build Smart Institute has become his dream job, as it combines his two greatest passions—teaching and construction.
Working full time along Cotner is Kathy Nordstrom, Administrative Coordinator for Build Smart Institute. Nordstrom spent two decades working in the masonry industry and finds her passion for the institute’s work through her interactions with the students.
“Wesley’s job title doesn’t capture the joy that he brings to the institute,” Smith says. “And Kathy—she just naturally connects with the people who come through our programs. She really makes a difference in people’s lives,” she adds.
Formal development of what would soon become Build Smart Institute was well underway, with a mission to inspire the entrepreneurial spirit of people who want to work with their hands by introducing high-quality industry training at early, mid and later career stages. Build Smart Institute’s 12,000-square-foot facility was opened in Roanoke, Virginia, with 2,000 square feet of classroom space and a 10,000-square-foot construction lab filled with a suite of construction tools and equipment for hands-on training.
Developing the Institute’s Focus and Framework
Through their market research, the team behind Build Smart Institute identified that there are more than 100,000 job vacancies nationally in the construction industry. So, as a first step, they set out to investigate further to better understand the true need.
“We wanted to be relevant for our locality and region and to make sure we understood the needs of our industry very directly in terms of technical and professional development,” Leonard says.
Leonard remembers his own childhood feelings of being curious about construction but recognizing that there was a stigma attached to that career path. To combat this stigma early on, the Build Smart Institute team has elected to start their construction school by offering career exploration courses to fifth, sixth and seventh grade students.
“These youngsters need to be availed the great possibilities of this career path,” he says.
From there, the institute’s programs cover middle school and high school students, where they learn the Core Fundamentals of Construction, a base-level program for people who want to come into the industry.
The Core Fundamentals of Construction program covers construction safety, CPR and first aid, construction math, and means, methods and materials. The bulk of the program is delivered from the Build Smart Institute lab, where students are taught through tactile, kinesthetic learning. Alongside this training, the program delivers an employability course that teaches students how to get a job and keep a job. It provides education on soft skills and life skills that can help a person secure long-term employment. From there, advanced students are introduced to more technical programs.
Dynamic, Targeted Learning Methods
The Build Smart Institute building block syllabus allows students to understand what’s available to them in the industry and arms them with the specific skills to follow an appropriate path.
For example, for those who aspire to take on senior-level jobs, such as crew leadership, superintendent work or project management, Build Smart Institute offers a specialized development program tailored to those pathways. The institute also runs a Department of Labor and Industry-certified apprenticeship program where it partners with construction companies to implement mentorship opportunities. The institute even provides mentorship training for the participating companies.
“That’s often a part of the equation that’s overlooked,” Leonard says. “When I was going through my plumber’s apprenticeship program, the guy mentoring me was great technically, but he was also a real jerk—and it almost derailed my career in construction.”
The institute goes the extra mile to reach students and meet the needs of its institutional and industry partners. It offers a broad curriculum, direct connection to private industry and is willing to pivot quickly to meet the respective needs of different entities being served.
Through the COVID-19 crisis, the institute has developed a virtual portal and is streaming its knowledge competency and professional development content into schools. Through this, the institute has supplemented technical high school programs that otherwise couldn’t have been delivered due to school shutdowns.
High school students who complete the institute’s fundamental core class come out with two national accreditations.
“This is higher education. Except the difference between this and a university or college is that folks can come through these programs with little to no debt, and they can be employable and expect a significant salary right out of the gate,” Leonard says.
After graduating one fundamental core class for high school students in 2020, F&S Building Innovations was immediately approached by a handful of students asking if they could come to work at the company. The institute was not only providing career training, but also fulfilling the need originally defined by the F&S team—recruiting quality craft workers to their firm who would provide a sustainable workforce for the future.
What Tomorrow Holds
For the team at Build Smart Institute, the real drive for doing this work is to help people find their proper place and to discover a fulfilling pathway—one that is not just based on making money, but also offers true satisfaction.
“What’s exciting is that we see people who really want to advance in their careers; who come to us for training to reach that next step,” Smith says. “At the same time, we’re hearing from managers in construction companies who ask for custom training for their teams because they can see we’re able to make their operations more productive,” she says.
Build Smart Institute can specialize and develop training quickly based on the needs of their industry partners, and they structure classes based on those partners’ schedules and availability.
The institute is also playing a role in improving site conditions that for decades have resulted in serious injuries and deaths for workers. And the institute champions the future of diversity and inclusion in construction leadership roles, including supporting stronger pathways into those careers for women, younger people and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
“The benefits of doing this are clear,” Leonard says. “For example, encouraging women in the construction world is simply not happening enough, and there are plenty of women out there who have way more than enough propensity as any male does to have a successful career in the construction fields,” he says. “There’s plenty to be harvested in the younger generation in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity. We’re working hard to try to support that change.”
Build Smart Institute has laid the foundation for what it hopes will be a future of growth. To start, the institute is working to make sure that its first lab for hands-on teaching in Virginia is sustainable. From there, it plans to open up satellite locations in other regions around the country. The institute’s leaders feel confident that their model has a wide-reaching value for the industry and for the people they are looking to recruit into it.
“The goal is to take this nationwide,” Smith says.
Beyond growth, Feazell sees another overarching goal for the Build Smart Institute. He wants the institute to show its students how to be good citizens through education.
“We teach people things that are really about the basics of life. Punctuality, how to conduct yourself with integrity,” Feazell says. “Our team isn’t just passionate about construction. We’re passionate about how we can change young lives.”