Construction pros to students: 'You have a valuable skill.'

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 11/30/22

A four-person panel of industry experts imparted wisdom to Mt. Hope construction students looking to enter the field.

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Construction pros to students: 'You have a valuable skill.'


Show up on time and when you’re expected, be ready to listen and learn, and don’t think there is one linear path to success. These were the common threads linking a panel discussion held at Mt. Hope High School’s library Monday morning featuring four experts in the construction field.

Each panelist had a unique path towards success within the industry, and each of them had different perspectives and messages of importance to offer to the roughly 25 junior and senior students who gathered as part of their construction program curriculum.

“I want to emphasize that you need to be driven, you need to be motivated, and you need to want to do it,” said Louis Cotoia, who has nearly 40 years of experience in the residential construction industry and is a member of the state’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Construction Subcommittee. “There’s plenty of people, like the four of us up here, who will take you by the hand and teach you, and we will share everything we know.”

There is no shortage of need for skilled labor
All four expert panelists tried to drive home a few major points of importance to the students — that work in the construction field is plentiful, potentially highly lucrative, and can be a pathway to a happy, long career.

Also important, is that there is no one linear path to success, or only a handful of careers to choose from.

“There are so many jobs in the construction field,” said Matt Cabral, building inspector for the Town of Warren. “Usually when you think of construction you just think ‘hammer, nails, saw’, but there’s jobs in the construction field that have nothing to do with physically putting a nail into wood. There’s planning, there’s engineering, there’s architecture…there’s property management.”

The panelists — many of whom started out in different careers, like Cabral, who was a police officer and firefighter before going into construction full-time, or Stephen Knapman, who had a long career as a firefighter in Newport — also stressed that it wasn’t vital for students to figure out their path right away.

“One of the coolest things about our industry is that it’s so diverse, and you can go from one field into another field, to another, but they’re all related in one way, shape or form,” Cotoia said. “And everything you’re learning and doing will transfer over to other parts of our industry.”

“Don’t be overly concerned about finding an immediate purpose in what you’re doing,” said B. Gökhan Çelik, Associate Dean and professor at Roger Williams University School of Engineering, Computing and Construction Management. “Nothing you decide right now is going to be the end of it. So take that stress out of the way.”

In terms of their entry into the workforce, panelists assured the students that the industry had no shortage of need for their skills as they develop them.

“We need 3,500 new people to enter our industry every single year,” Cotoia said. “Our industry is begging for people in the biggest way that I’ve ever seen in 38 years.”

“You have a skill,” Cabral added. “And that skill is going to be worth a lot of money to someone who needs to have the work done.”

But the burden of success is on the students
While they emphasized the open nature of the construction industry, each panelist also stressed that it is not a field of work for those who are averse to putting in long, difficult hours to get ahead. It’s an area that Cotoia said that this generation, in particular, is going to have to prove through continued effort when starting out.

“The single biggest barrier you will face is the perception our industry has of today’s 17- and 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds. And that is the perception of a lack of focus. That you’re worried about everything else going on in life without worrying about what’s in front of you at the current time,” he said. “You have to beat that perception…Phones are the biggest problem I see, and I see it at job sites all the time. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

He told a story of a bright young contractor who excelled all throughout his classroom training, prompting Cotoia to recommend him to a fellow contractor immediately upon his certification. Ten days later, the promising young man was fired due to poor attendance and tardiness.

“The best thing you can do to demonstrate your skills is by showing your drive and your willingness to learn,” he said.

“Don’t go out into the field acting like you know everything,” added Cabral, saying that sometimes, the best thing you can do early in a construction career is keep your eyes and ears open, while keeping your mouth closed.

The panel also expounded a bit on the concept of being careful about what perception of yourself is put out onto social media channels.

“If an employer is worth anything, the minute they get an application from someone they want to hire they’re going to type their name into Google and see what’s out there,” said Stephen Knapman, a general contractor and state CTE Advisory Board member. “Once you put something out there, you can’t take it back.”

Owning a business, and creating a life
Whether students would go on to career jobs working for a firm, or branch out on their own to launch their own businesses, the panelists said to be ready for a lifetime of hard work, either way.

“Owning a company has a lot of perks, but at the end of the day we’re the ones with all the responsibility,” Cotoia said.

“Everyone here has the opportunity to be a contractor…but they don’t teach you how to run a business and how to make sure you make money and can make payroll if you have employees,” added Cabral.

Çelik told the students in attendance that through building their career in construction, they will also be building crucial life skills that are applicable elsewhere — things like how to deal with stress, and how to manage people and navigate conflicts among different personalities. He said the most important quality aspiring workers in the construction fields can possess is a continuing will to learn.

“Continue to ask questions and have fun,” he said. “Hopefully, you will end up making a lot of money, but more importantly, hopefully you will be able to enjoy a good life.”

It was a point that Costa made as well, considering how long a career must be to reach retirement age.

“The only person who can answer what you want to do for the rest of your life is you,” he said. “If there’s anything you take from today, it’s to sit and really think about what you want to be doing for the next 45 years of your life.”

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.