Every craftsman and craftswoman’s journey through the construction industry is unique. Whether he or she started in the field directly out of high school or found his or her love for construction later in life, many have experienced growth and upward mobility in the industry.
One craftsman, Rob Leonard, found his passion in high school. His pursuit throughout the industry led him to become the Director of Safety and Education at F&S Building Innovations, a position that will allow him to teach students about the industry and its benefits.
Ever since Leonard was young, he knew he wanted to work with his hands. As young as three years old, Leonard was playing with building blocks and constructing his own world. Before he knew it, he was using his imagination and constructing forts with real lumber. Throughout his childhood, he was driven by wanting to create and build.
As he went through school, he found himself disinterested and unmotivated by traditional subjects and textbooks. Because of this, he didn’t feel passionate about school and wasn’t interested in pursuing college.
Nearing graduation, Leonard met with his school guidance counselor to discover his options after high school. To his dismay, the counselor dismissed his wishes to pursue a craft career in construction and pushed him to pursue a four-year degree. Luckily, his counselor was still able to point Leonard to a construction program that he could enroll in while still in high school.
The program, World of Construction, would change his life.
As Leonard was navigating school and figuring out his career path, he was also amidst hard times and was dealing with a broken family. His experience in the program gave him direction and helped him find purpose during the most challenging time of his life.
His teacher and mentor through the program, Col. Steve Zolimij validated construction as a respectable career and helped Leonard discover a career path that made sense for him. By setting him straight and showing him the benefits of a career in construction, Zolimij changed Leonard’s life.
Out of high school, Leonard began working in a variety of construction jobs and was able to make a livable wage at 18 years old. As he worked in construction, he was able support himself, work with his hands and practice problem solving. Every day, Leonard was validated in his choice to pursue the skilled crafts.
Leonard was able to gain 10 years of meaningful experience under his Uncle, Joe Jacquelin, working at the family construction business. This allowed Leonard to grow as a carpenter and leader of a carpentry team which built interiors and exteriors of buildings. Later in his career, he even started his own construction business. Through each of these endeavors, one thing shone through — his love of construction.
Eventually, Leonard found himself at a design building firm that specialized in architecture, design and field construction. As a site manager, he discovered his passion for creating passive houses, a German certification for energy-efficient buildings.
With the company’s owner, Adam Cohen, Leonard began to develop panels that any carpenter would be able to install when constructing a building. The panels, which took nine years to develop, allow for the easy construction of passive houses.
The panels were a collaborative effort between Prosoco, Cohen and Leonard. Once they were developed, Build Smart was born out of Lawrence, Kansas. As the lead expert on the panels, Leonard became a founding member and the Vice President of the company.
Still, the best position of his career was yet to come.
In February, Leonard accepted a position at F&S Building Innovations as the Director of Safety and Education. In this position, he will be helping professionals on the team and recruiting and training craftspeople — all as he works to de-stigmatize the industry.
Best of all, Leonard is working to create a construction education institute that will help students and adults pursue a career in the crafts. When offered the position, his jaw hit the floor.
After everything the industry has done for him, he feels like this is his opportunity to pay it forward and change someone else’s life.
As he began his research for the institute, Leonard placed a call that was long overdue.
Over 40 years after meeting, he got in touch with his former teacher, Zolimij, and told him how much he changed his life. Moved by the conversation, the two remain in contact and Zolimij has proven to be a helpful resource as Leonard builds his construction education program from the ground up.
Moving forward, Leonard is putting immense research and strategy into a program that will work to uplift, mentor and teach students in a way that properly sets them up for a career. Completing research at the local, regional and nationwide level, he is discovering the best way to serve the community and the industry.
Working with NCCER to provide credentials for those going through the program, he hopes to successfully connect education and industry.
Overall, Leonard hopes to provide students with their best chance for success — regardless of what they want to do. Knowing what it is like to be pushed toward a formal four-year education, he doesn’t want other students to be pushed away from a career in construction.