Building construction alum’s engagement centers on industry connections, service learning
Some things never change.
Since Virginia Tech alumnus Bob Wells graduated with a degree in building construction (BC) in 1973, the program has surely navigated a few important transitions. Notably, the establishment of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction (MLSOC), a joint venture with the College of Engineering, gave BC a new administrative home in 2006, while the 2007 completion of Bishop-Favrao Hall also provided a much-needed physical home for the program.
A steady industry demand for qualified BC graduates has remained throughout the decades. Wells, who estimates he graduated with more than 20 job offers, sees a close parallel between then and recent years, as school of construction grads have historically enjoyed strong job placement.
“As an industry, we’re still facing a giant hole in the workforce,” said Wells. “Firms are in dire need of skilled building construction professionals and leaders, the future executives and general managers. That’s what Myers-Lawson is turning out. The industry was looking for strong graduates then, and it’s looking for them now.”
And Wells would know. After taking his first job and jumping around the United States on several field assignments as a project manager, he banded together with a few colleagues to establish the VIRTEXCO Corp. in 1976.
Based in Norfolk, Virginia, VIRTEXCO is a design/build general contracting firm that has handled a wide range of projects over the years, from schools and medical facilities to public buildings and residential developments. Wells served as the firm’s CEO until 2016, when he retired 40 years to the day after the company’s founding.
Wells had always known he would end up in construction. His own father, who started out as a carpenter, became a business owner and general contractor when Wells was still a boy. “From the time I was 10 or 11 years old, I was on a job site every summer, Saturday, and holiday,” he said. “I always knew that’s where I was headed. Always.”
Despite his family’s background in construction, Wells knew that obtaining a college degree was an important step in helping him reach his career goals, a sentiment he says was confirmed by his experiences in the industry.
“I never would have been given the opportunities I had without my Virginia Tech degree,” he said. “My training in the BC program meant my input was valued – I was on level footing with my colleagues from the beginning. It launched my career and opened doors, both professionally and personally.”
His time in the BC program also led Wells to an important service and advisory role, one he still champions today.
Although he kept in close contact with mentor William Favrao, the BC program’s founder and head until his death in 1977, Wells didn’t really get involved until 1998. That’s when then-department head Yvan Beliveau called to tell Wells the program was establishing an industry advisory board to help lead BC through its upcoming accreditation process. He asked if Wells would be interested in joining.
That phone call kickstarted Wells’s long-standing engagement with the university, where he has served as a valued member and head of the BC industry advisory board and the MLSOC industry advisory board and executive committee.
“In the early days of the BC board, we had a lot of freedom to self-define,” said Wells. “We decided our main role was to provide support – not only monetary support, but also lobbying for recognition and resources, both within the university and externally with industry.”
Wells and his board colleagues also provided guidance to faculty from an industry perspective, giving students access to worksites for field trips and advising on what technology skills were most valued in graduates. They also encouraged other industry partners to get more involved in the program directly by investing in students – which Wells sees as a way to sustain the profession.
“Since Myers-Lawson was created by the industry, for the industry, Bob’s voice has been critical over the years,” said Brian Kleiner, professor and director of MLSOC. “He’s always been one of my most-trusted advisors. And as a donor, more than any other, he has emphasized the service learning mission of the school, which is right in line with Ut Prosim. Bob has a passion for the underserved and underrepresented, and he backs this passion with his personal finances.”
One way that passion has come to life is through MLSOC’s service learning trips to developing countries and underserved areas, the first of which Wells and his wife Janice helped spearhead in 2009. After assisting with initial fundraising for the project, the couple traveled to Belize alongside program faculty and students to help install running water and handwashing stations in a local school.
That one week had a profound impact on them. “It was such a great opportunity to get to know the students and really see how that experience changed them,” said Wells. “We wanted to make sure these trips continued in the future.”
To that end, the Wellses established an endowed fund to help sustain MLSOC service learning trips in perpetuity. In recognition of their support to both MLSOC and Virginia Tech more broadly, they became members of the Ut Prosim Society's President's Circle in 2018.
Since that first project in Belize, MLSOC service learning trips have flourished. Although they’ve currently been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, program faculty are hopeful these trips can resume in the spring of 2021.
In previous years, students and faculty have built a bridge in Honduras, a school in Haiti, mercy houses and a school in Vietnam, a school pavilion in Belize, and a greenhouse in Kaua’i to feed the homeless. They’ve also completed water infrastructure projects in Rwanda as well as a number of additional builds in various locations.
Ashley Johnson, construction engineering management program chair and assistant professor of practice, has led the service learning trips since 2015 and said the group often tries to build lasting partnerships with the communities they visit. Doing so means students and faculty can return to a single location multiple times, collaborating with local nonprofits to create cumulative investments through a number of improvement projects spread over several trips.
Students not only learn practical skills like on-the-ground design and construction safety and the logistics of planning and scheduling in rural environments. “They also learn what it means to be a global citizen,” said Johnson. “Students participate in traditional customs and events, and they create meaningful partnerships and friends abroad. These trips really teach them to give back in a larger way.”
And it’s that aspect of a Virginia Tech education – a focus on service – that continues to motivate Wells to pave a path forward for future Hokies. He believes it’s important for students to step outside their worldview and learn to attend to the needs of others.
“To me, that’s what separates us from other schools,” said Wells. “Our students come out of MLSOC with a passion for helping and serving others, and they’ve grown beyond a ‘me’ mentality. They have an enthusiasm for making a difference.”