At Georgia Northwestern Technical College, Donny Holmes is the director of a thriving construction management program. His students are a fixture at SkillsUSA competitions – five are headed to the 2022 SkillsUSA National Championships in June – and they regularly go on to successful careers in the building industry.
Those students don’t find their way to GNTC’s Gordon County Campus in Calhoun by accident – Holmes actively builds relationships with high school construction teachers, who in turn put him in front of captive audiences to hear his recruiting message.
Holmes’ career pipeline runs in the other direction, too: He has an extensive network of industry contacts he can send students and graduates to for internships, apprenticeships and full-time jobs.
“I beat the bushes,” says Donny, who worked in construction management for an Atlanta-area company before becoming an instructor at GNTC 17 years ago. “It’s all about the relationships.”
We recently chatted with Donny about his program, his success in connecting students with industry professionals, and more.
Tell us about your construction management program at Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
It’s all residential-based. We primarily teach students how to build a house – everything from safety and blueprint readings to framing and interior and exterior finishes. We also do land surveying and building layout, and then we have the management classes – estimating, scheduling, building code, contracting. So they’re pretty well-rounded when they get through the program. Some students continue their education right next door with our residential and commercial electrical program taught by my colleague, Scott Carter.
How do you go about building relationships with high school instructors?
Well, first and foremost, I’m a judge for the SkillsUSA regional carpentry competition, so I’m able meet instructors when they bring their kids to compete, and I develop those relationships there. It usually starts with just getting their contact information and saying, ‘Hey, can I come talk to your class?’ Some of them I’ve known for years. There’s quite a few high school programs in this region that I try to get out to at least once, sometimes twice a year.
What is your message when you talk to students about considering a technical college education?
I tell them my story. When I got out of high school, I stayed in my hometown [in New York] and took a few classes at a local community college and didn’t apply myself whatsoever, and I failed psychology. But I realized I needed to dig in and do better, so I pursued an associate degree, and as I got a little older, I ended up getting a bachelor’s degree. I realized I didn’t want to live with my parents the rest of my life, working a job making minimum wage.
So first I try to get on their level and tell them that I didn’t like college, that I didn’t want to go, that I failed. I say, ‘Hey, I know where you’re at. Not everybody is geared for four years of school. But you need to get something, whether it’s an associate degree or a certificate – you need some sort of education.’ And I explain to them that students who are coming through my program are making more than I did when I got out of a four-year program with 10 years of student loans. Usually that holds their attention pretty well.
After students come into your program, how are you able to help them get hands-on experience and, as they get closer to graduation, full-time jobs?
I network a lot. I meet contractors at the SkillsUSA state competitions in Atlanta. I’ll go around and talk to them and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got some great students and they’re needing internships, they’re needing jobs. Are you guys hiring?’
Sometimes I drive around and find job sites and talk to people. For example, there’s about two or three new developments in Gordon County. I got in touch with some of the commissioners recently, to see if I could get some contact info for the developers and builders, and see if we could develop some kind of relationship. If they’re going to be building anywhere from 500 to 1000 houses in the next year or two, it would be a great way to get students some hands-on experience.
I also stay in contact with our graduates. Some of them call me and say, ‘Hey, we need to hire.’ There’s a homebuilder in Marietta that’s hired three of my graduates. Those guys stay in touch with and me and say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for somebody.’ Right now, that company is talking to one of my students who just graduated a few weeks ago, about coming on board and doing some work in the summer.
There’s a critical need for skilled workers throughout the construction industry. Do you find that’s a helpful selling point when you’re recruiting potential technical college students?
Yes. I hear first-hand from the construction companies about their needs. We can read articles and statistics saying how many construction jobs are out there, and I can throw these numbers at high school students when I go and visit them, or I can say, ‘I know this contractor up towards Chattanooga, or this one right here in our hometown, or one down towards Atlanta or whatever, and they’re looking to hire now.’ So it kind of drives it home with the high schoolers that I have relationships with these companies and they are looking for people. It’s not just a statistic or chart from a national survey or something. I can say, ‘These employers are looking, and as soon as you graduate, they want to interview you and hire you.’ It makes them a little hungry – makes them want to strive and get that education and go to work.
How gratifying is it for you personally when you students succeed in industry?
I could probably make more money working in industry, but it’s rewarding to be able to see students get jobs and do well. To think that they came through a technical college and not a four-year program, and they’re making all kinds of money – that makes me pretty proud and pretty excited. It’s very rewarding for me personally to see students get out of here and do well with their careers.