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The Blueprint: In Honor of John McMahon

By Arnesa A. Howell

When John McMahon decided to make the transition from vision to reality with the creation of the Academy of Construction and Design (ACAD), he reached out to the industry he knew so well. Together with other construction industry leaders, he got to work on reviving vocational education and training in the city, which over the years had lost traction as a priority within the city’s public education system.

At the time, challenges included finding a location for the academy, financing the project and convincing students, parents and educators that skilled trades could provide a solid pathway to real careers. Communications with District officials had stalled.

“We collected a very diverse group — developers, contractors, subcontractors, the faith community — and that was the team that really made this successful, ” said McMahon, chairman emeritus of Miller & Long Concrete Construction, in a video montage when asked by Academy co-founder Carol Randolph to stroll down memory lane.

Led by McMahon, the founding members included M.C. Dean, Sigal Construction and Donohoe Construction. The collaboration led to the founding of the D.C. Students Construction Trades Foundation (DCSCTF), which launched the Academy in 2005.

“The ribbon cutting at Cardozo was a significant moment,” said Randolph. McMahon agreed.

With the support of then-principal Reginald Ballard, McMahon and a coalition of other business, community and faith-based leaders opened the doors of a program to revitalize career and technical education (CTE) in the school system to give youth job-readiness skills. Fast-forward, and students enrolled in the program have built a tiny house, an even smaller microhouse, and in 2013, a single-family home in the Brightwood neighborhood of Northwest, Washington, D.C.

“That was a grand moment,” recalls McMahon, also president emeritus of the Foundation’s board of directors. “We found that the students that worked on that were so enthusiastic and so proud of what they had accomplished. And that was exactly what we wanted to do.”

A Journey Continues
Since then, the program has expanded to 10 public and charter schools across the city. Participants include students from tech-forward Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) High School, Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, Ballou Senior High School, McKinley Technology High School and H.D. Woodson High School, among others. Through the program, students are offered internships, industry mentoring, opportunities for pre-apprenticeship certifications, and ultimately, a doorway to greater earning power if pursuing trade-backed jobs — from licensed electrician and carpenter to architect and engineer. Its signature internship program, ACAD Builds, provides hands-on training. Future classes are readying to build another student-constructed house along East Capitol Street in Northeast, Washington, D.C. The dual track ACAD program is a pathway to college or career.

During the latest Meet the Future ceremony, a collective of friends, industry peers and students expressed their appreciation for McMahon’s continued support of the program. In videotaped remarks, these were just a few words ACAD students offered McMahon:

  • “You have invested in us.”
  • “You have taught us to invest in ourselves.”
  • ”You have prepared us for the world, has the world been prepared for us?”
  • ”When I have children, I will bring my children by to say, ‘Look what your dad did. I helped to build this.’ ”

A core part of his team (and successes) has been Randolph, who is also the former Foundation COO, as well as Emille Robinson, program coordinator for the ACAD Builds internship program, Shelly Karriem, director of ACAD, and Beth Moore Shenton, director of Foundation programs for DCSCTF. Randolph noted that many young people were able to go on to college because “you stepped in and helped in many ways,” including for tuition and transportation.

Meanwhile, Shenton praised McMahon for offering participating high school interns and registered apprentices — a separate Foundation outreach also started during McMahon’s tenure as board president — new ways to train and grow, while Karriem credited him for “solidifying the futures of so many in D.C.”

Rod Woodson, senior counsel at Parker Poe, and a longtime adviser continued the accolades: “He has this intuitive sense of what’s right and he has this truthfulness about him that is so visibly obvious.” And if there’s ever a man who embodies those traits, Woodson said, it’s him.

Out of the Wilderness
Helping the formerly incarcerated find gainful employment is another challenging issue for the city that Miller & Long has worked to address. From hiring the formerly incarcerated to holding on-site employment forums at its corporate office to provide on-the-job support, McMahon has understood the importance of job opportunities for all.

JOBS Coalition President Rev. Stephen Tucker recalled both McMahon’s and Miller & Long’s long-term commitment to helping District residents, including individuals returning to the city after their release from prison, gain employment. When Tucker visited a North Carolina prison as part of this effort, McMahon dispatched a company representative to accompany him to “give people about to be released some hope for employment.” The company also participated in a series of job fairs aimed to help this population and others find gainful employment.

“John McMahon came into the wilderness, and this program generated out of the wilderness,” said Tucker, referencing the Meet the Future event.

It would signal what lay ahead. More than 200 have graduated from the ACAD program since its inception. As McMahon took to the lectern at the Meet the Future ceremony on May 18, he marveled at the graduates seated before him. Each one, a symbol of a legacy with one goal: to see success person-by-person.

“Look at all the young people that are going out into the world today for a successful career. For the rest of their lives, they will be doing the great things that trades people do,” McMahon said. “Not in my wildest imagination could I have thought we’d gotten this far.”