As the largest general contracting firm headquartered in Howard County, Harkins Builders, Inc. is keenly aware of the critical importance of recruiting talented and energetic young people into the construction industry. And it is the reason why, for more than 30 years, the Columbia-based group has been supporting Howard Community College’s (HCC) Workforce Development & Trades curriculum, which has proven its effectiveness in attracting talent and training students to have long and productive careers working in construction and other industries.

Ben Nichols, President & CEO of Harkins Builders, remembers vividly when the company’s former head, Dick Lombardo, tapped him on the shoulder and requested his participation as an adjunct professor. Harkins Builders assisted HCC with the development of its construction management major more than 15 years ago, helped with the formation of its construction management apprenticeship program and eventually hired HCC’s first construction management apprentice in 2019. The company has since hired many alumni.

“There continues to be a shortage of quality tradesmen and women, and multiple companies are joining with HCC to educate young people about the virtues of this profession,” Nichols explained. “As an adjunct professor for many years, I was fortunate to interact with young people and watch their maturation and development. Attending a four-year college is not the right fit for everyone. Entering the trades profession might not be top-of-mind for many high-school-aged students, but it can lead to a long and productive career. It also propels some entrepreneurs to establish their own businesses.”

Harkins Builders is partnering with multiple companies in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area to assist with fundraising efforts for HCC’s new Workforce Development & Trades Center, which is targeting a summer 2026 opening. The 50,000-square-foot facility will support students interested in careers in construction skilled trades, manufacturing, heavy equipment operation, and automotive mechanics.

Nichols is co-chairing the campaign with Zack Shariff, CEO, Allen + Shariff Corporation, an engineering firm with international offices.

“In essence, the HCC program is creating a labor force for many local businesses which depend on the regular supply of qualified and highly trained workers,” explained Shariff. “Young people, by and large, are not aware that an electrician career can pay $80,000 to $100,000 annually, which is a good living wage and certainly high enough to support a family in this area. But, given the pressures to earn a four-year degree and enter the business world, many high-school-aged youth are not focusing on a trade career. That is a shame, especially since graduates are close to debt-free when completing the HCC program.”

Shariff explains that, as an immigrant entering the country with practically nothing, he successfully rose through the ranks and achieved the American dream based on hard work and determination. He points to similarities with the HCC Workforce Development and Trades program.

“Vocational training schools were extremely popular in the past, but most disappeared because, in part, high schools were not adequately explaining every career option,” Shariff added. “The HCC program is filling a critical gap in the trades industry and we need more students to become aware of this incredible resource right in their backyard. Education can truly make a difference in lives.”