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NGA Aerial view of the Next NGA West campus concept from the northwest.

Architectural rendering depicts a potential aerial view of the Next NGA West campus concept from the northwest. (McCarthy HITT, via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Soon, one of the biggest projects in the region’s history will begin in north city. Construction of the new home for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s western headquarters — dubbed Next NGA West — will mean lots of jobs for lots of people in and around the St. Louis area.

As president of the Associated General Contractors of Missouri, I see on a daily basis the need for skilled construction tradesmen and women. It’s not always an easy career to get started in, especially at first. There can be long hours, hard work and reduced apprenticeship wages. But for those who choose the work, it can pay off with valuable experience, desirable wages and benefits and steady employment.

What excites us about the Next NGA West construction project is the possibility of job stability, which is a rare commodity for many workers in St. Louis. Although the jobless rate in the region is relatively low right now, many of those jobs are filled at minimum wage, and frequently they don’t offer long-term employment, future advancement or the development of skills that can be used elsewhere.

However, those seeking to learn a trade such as carpentry, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), plumbing, or heavy equipment operation are more likely to have a bright — and profitable — future. Projects like Next NGA West are multifaceted, multiyear undertakings. That type of consistent experience can yield positive, long-term results for the workforce in our area. I’ve have seen it happen before with the I-64 redevelopment, the new Busch Stadium, Ballpark Village and others.

It’s important for everyone in St. Louis, not just those of us involved in the construction industry, to support the idea of putting people to work in jobs that pay well and offer opportunities to learn and grow. The stability associated with this type of employment can and does enhance our region in many different ways: through a vibrant economy, strong housing sales, thriving school districts and satisfied, optimistic residents. When people have viable work and careers, it can alter their lives for the better. I’ve seen it make an enormous difference.

For those without experience in the construction industry, apprenticeships are a great way to enter the trades. But don’t think of them as internships. Apprenticeships are on-the-job opportunities that teach and foster skills that can be transferred to full- and part-time employment through a broad range of construction activities. Industry leaders value apprenticeship experience, and the quality of this training gives these men and women a competitive edge.

Taking the first step is usually the most difficult. There are several local organizations — Associated General Contractors of Missouri, St. Louis Area Training for Employment, Building Union Diversity, MOKAN Construction Contractors Assistance Center and Employment Connection — that can assist with training and finding apprenticeships.

Construction training information fairs are a great place to meet representatives from these groups to learn more about the various apprenticeships available. Two such summertime events have already been held. The next event will be from 4 to 7 p.m., Aug. 27, at the St. Stanislaus Community Center.

In May, I attended the first of these fairs and met with dozens of people who were excited to start apprenticeships and train in construction trades so they will be ready and available for good jobs that pay well. The importance of starting an apprenticeship just before the hiring ramp-up of a major construction project cannot be overstated. Those with high-profile construction project experience on their résumés will strengthen their opportunities for future employment on other job sites.

Outstanding construction career opportunities, like those presented by the Next NGA West construction project, exist right now for the men and women of the St. Louis region. I hope you’ll join me in encouraging our young people to take advantage of them.

Len Toenjes is president of The Associated General Contractors of Missouri.