There was a time when Temple students could walk comfortably down 13th Street to get to the Student Center. That era has been replaced with the reign of the construction worker, the man pounding steel three stories up and scuffing his boots off the benches of Montgomery Avenue. Yet despite his daily presence on campus, the construction worker’s relationship with the student population appears to end there.
“I don’t think about construction much,” said freshman art major Ryan Cox.
Cox is not alone. For some Temple students, the advantages of construction labor – aside from the steady pay – are unknown.
“It’s an honest job,” said junior liberal arts major Brian Mollot. “I can see myself working it if I had to. I don’t know. It’s better than being a garbage man.”
The steelworkers erecting Alter Hall, the future addition to the Fox School of Business, have a clearer mindset on the benefits of construction work. Some, like 27-year-old Omar Clifton, left other careers to join the steel trade. Clifton earned a degree in Web page design from the Art Institute of Philadelphia before becoming an ironworking apprentice.
“It’s a little more rewarding,” Clifton said. “It’s not an oversaturated business. You’re always going to be building something. And when everything’s done I can say ‘Yeah, I remember when I built that.'”
“I love being up in the air, it’s exciting,” said Brian Stott, a steelworker with nine years of experience. Stott left construction to enroll in X-ray school and returned after one year. “I found it boring,” he said. “When I was working in X-ray, my hands got too soft.”
Fortifying one’s hands doesn’t appeal to students like sophomore accounting major Paul Lee, who joked that he was “too puny” for construction work. But construction has the ace-in-the-hole that appeals to all cash-strapped college students: a handsome payday.
“It seems like a good source of income,” said junior pharmacy major David Dinh.
Income was what attracted Chester County native Walter Hollingsworth.
“I came into ironwork because of the money,” he said. “I never knew what it was before I came into it.”
Hollingsworth said he also values his field’s stability.
“A lot of college students, they don’t seem to land jobs when they get out of college,” he said. “I know college students who never landed a job in their field. They’re working at stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot.”
Like many of his peers, steelworker Jim Dunn said he enjoys Temple’s humming campus environment. Still, he challenges the assumption that college degrees guarantee a job after graduation.
“I didn’t go to college,” Dunn said. “I should’ve gone to college. But a lot of people go and don’t even get a job out of what they’re going for. I know people who graduated from high school who’re making a lot of money. You could do something much worse than this with less pay.”
Dunn entered construction because he said it paid better than his former carpet installation job. He stays because of the sturdy benefits he receives as a union steelworker: vacation pay, annuity and unemployment checks during construction’s off-season months.
“You get laid off a lot,” he said. “I didn’t work for a couple months in the winter. But sometimes it’s nice to have a few months off.”
Junior accounting major Mikhail Forrester may have wished for vacation time after a stint in summer construction. He described construction work as “a rough job, mentally and physically.”
“I would get up at 5 a.m., and it’s not every morning you want to work hard,” he said. “Student workers didn’t get as much respect because we didn’t have the mindset that it was ‘our’ job. We had the mindset of doing construction work for three months.”
“We stereotype construction workers,” Forrester added. “Put yourself in this scenario: imagine you go off to college while your friend stays home to work construction. What do you think of your friend? You might think that he has settled.”
Junior Sabrina Shapiro matched his account, stating that people don’t give construction workers enough credit when it’s due.
And without them, attending class would be a little tough, Dunn said. “If we don’t build it, where are you going to go to school?”
Mel McKrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.