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Buffalo’s SACRA Program Teaches the Art of Construction to Underemployed Students

The American construction industry is booming, according to a recent report published by U.S. News and World Report. But there’s a noticeable shortage of qualified workers to go around. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that in the first quarter of 2018, employers have needed to fill an average of nearly 225,000 construction jobs every month. In addition, 91% of contractors, construction managers, builders, and trade contractors revealed in the latest Commercial Construction Index that they had a difficult or moderately difficult time finding skilled workers. But one program in Buffalo — the Society for the Advancement of Construction-Related Arts — could turn that around, a little bit at a time.

SACRA, as it’s known, is a 15-week program that centers around training under-employed students from various backgrounds in skills that are highly in-demand in the construction arts and design sectors. While the construction industry eliminated more than 40% of its work force between 2006 and 2011, it’s now very much on the upswing — and there are more openings than ever, provided you have the skills.

These students do, despite the fact that they admittedly don’t know much when they first start. Many of the students — who are referred to SACRA through the Erie County’s Department of Social Services — have never used any kind of power tool prior to enrolling in the program. But by its end, they’re able to operate chop saws and all kinds of machine tools — most of which are made in only about 10 countries worldwide, including the United States. Students learn to frame a house, to install everything from stairs to stained glass, to follow safety regulations, and to improve upon soft skills to aid in future work interviews and on-the-job experiences. Participants get to benefit from knowledge from some of the region’s best craftspeople and artisans, as well as a team of dedicated instructors.

The unique vocational program was formed due to a collaboration between the University of Buffalo’s Dennis Maher — the artist and architect who runs Assembly House 150 (the church-turned-experimental space which SACRA calls home) — and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Innovation Lab. While this year’s graduating class is only the program’s second so far, its effects on and potential for the community are palpable.

Mahler told UBNow: “There is such a legacy of artistic and design excellence in much of the architecture in Buffalo. We want to graduate students who can contribute to bolstering that culture of contemporary craftsmanship excellence, both from a design and a making standpoint.”

SACRA’s Program Coordinator, Alexandra Johnson, explained, “We are seeing more restoration projects as the city’s housing stock ages, but there is a lack of trained workers for those projects,” which is why these students offer so much promise for the area.

The students feel inspired upon the program’s completion, too. Student Donna Neiberline, who had been able to find work only as a server and fast food worker before enrolling in the program, told UBNow that her knowledge and self-assurance have grown throughout the program.

“I’ve learned something new here pretty much every day,” said Neiberline. “Even the first project we did — we made sawhorses — that was the first thing I’d ever built. Being able to finish something and say ‘I made this’ was a good feeling. Before, I never would have thought I could do that, and now it seems kind of simple.”

And that, Maher notes, is the very spirit behind the program itself: “It’s so rewarding to see their confidence build and the pride that comes from visitors entering our space and saying, ‘Wow, this work is amazing.'”

SACRA’s spring graduating class gathered on June 20 at the program’s HQ to celebrate the students’ achievements and recognize the incredible journey of each participant before sending them off into the world to put their skills to good use. While only eight students made up this latest graduating class, six have already found jobs and, according to Albright-Knox Innovation Lab Manager Russell Davidson, “we’re expecting the phone to ring any minute now” for the others.