Visitors with part of the exhibit at Kids Square. Photo by Michael Hemphill.
Visitors with part of the exhibit at Kids Square. Photo by Michael Hemphill.

Shifting the right-hand controller, 6-year-old Emmie Eagle lowers the excavator into the pit of sand and with a twist of the left-handed stick dumps the load a few feet away. 

“Awesome job!” beamed her mother. 

“I liked it!” Emmie squealed. “I liked dumping it!”

Child-sized but lifelike equipment such as a pair of excavators, a nearby dump truck and crane, plus actual drills, hard hats and hammers, electrical circuits that can be created and connected, and houses designed to be torn down and rebuilt, are all features of “The Construction Zone,” a new 1,500-square-foot exhibit that opened Sunday in downtown Roanoke’s Kids Square children’s museum in Center in the Square.

The Branch Group and Carter Machinery partnered with Kids Square to plan, design and build The Construction Zone, which, according to Branch’s marketing director Kim Sargent, hopes to inspire children to consider careers in the construction industry that’s already facing a nationwide labor shortage of 650,000 and is projected to lose 53 percent of its workforce by 2036 due to retirement.

Kim Sargent of The Branch Group and Felicia Branham of Kids Square. Photo by Michael Hemphill.

Construction jobs can provide six-figure salaries for people with just a high-school diploma, said Sargent, but high schools today don’t emphasize skill trades. 

“We have a major skills gap and construction is one of those industries that gets overlooked as a STEM field. It’s completely Science, Technology, Engineering, Math,” Sargent said. “We want to get in front of the parents and kids to show them this is a viable long-term career for them and spark an interest in them at a young age that will carry them through their schooling, and hopefully they’ll come work for us one day.”

While high schools may not highlight skill trades, Roanoke City Public Schools did have a role in creating The Construction Zone. Students in vocational classes built wooden cubbies and other shelving to hold tools and hard hats. Kids Square hopes to give back by creating construction-related curricula to take into the schools.

Founded in 2017, Kids Square bills itself as a premier destination “where families come together to EXPLORE, PLAY, and LEARN in a hands-on learning environment.” The museum features a Tiny Town and other exhibits – each sponsored by Roanoke companies – designed to introduce children to various careers: banker, teacher, healthcare provider, beautician, veterinarian, and so on.

But not so with construction, said Sargent. “I brought my two girls in about a year ago and saw that Kids Square had a little construction area in a corner somewhere and I was like, hmm, that’s really good but … I wonder if we can do better.”

Kids Square executive director Felicia Branham leapt at the idea. “My dad worked on machinery and I got to ride on equipment as a kid and I’ve always loved it,” said Branham. She’d always wanted something like a Construction Zone, but without Branch Group’s and Carter Machinery’s time and talent, it wouldn’t have happened.

The crane alone would have cost Kids Square $27,000. Branch Group’s carpenters took the design, invested about $5,000 in materials, and over the course of a few weeks built one from scratch.

Sargent couldn’t put a dollar figure on Branch Group’s overall investment in The Construction Zone, only that “everyone just feels really good about it.” 

“Branch Group has not only given to us monetarily,” said Branham, “they have knocked out walls we weren’t expecting to knock down, relocated electrical circuits, they’ve done it all.” Meanwhile, Carter Machinery created and donated all the graphics and some other materials. 

“We could not ask for better partners for this exhibit.”

The Construction Zone is Branch Group’s latest initiative to engage children and teenagers in the construction field. 

In October, the company – responsible for regional projects such as the recent expansion of the Interstate 81 Exit 143 interchange and Roanoke College’s Cregger Center – hosted its first G.I.R.L. (Girls in Real Life) Construction Experience. Teaming up with the Girl Scouts of Virginia Skyline, Branch and its partners offered real-life, kid-friendly experiences covering all facets of construction. 

“By the time girls enter high school, less than 12 percent will consider a career in STEM,” said Nikki Williams, CEO for Girl Scouts of Virginia Skyline Council, according to a Branch Group news release. “It is important that girls are exposed to every aspect of construction, science, technology, engineering, and math as early as possible. If we want to close the gender gap in construction and STEM fields, we must ensure that all girls have access to high-quality construction and STEM learning experiences.”

So far, so good for 6-year-old Emmie Eagle, whose family had journeyed from Galax to check out Kids Square for the first time. Both mom Ariel Hart and dad Brandon Eagle are already in the construction field, building furniture at Albany Industries.

Surveying The Construction Zone and its hope to inspire both boys and girls, Hart said: “I really like it. Women can do whatever men can do too, so I love that.”

Michael Hemphill

Michael Hemphill is a former award-winning newspaper reporter, and less lauded stay-at-home dad, who has spent the last 20 years becoming an entrepreneurial nonprofit leader in Southwest Virginia. He is...