By F. Amanda Tugade, Des Moines Register
It’s Friday afternoon in late October, and Perlla Deluca is walking down a quiet, empty hallway of an old school building on Des Moines’ southeast side.
Deluca’s boisterous voice and the click-clack of her high heels are the only signs of life inside Percy Hoak Elementary School, a roughly 18,000-square-foot property that’s been vacant for nearly a decade and once was thought to be a potential site for affordable senior housing. Deluca’s pink nails and turtleneck stand out against her black attire and the building’s bare walls.
Like an artist ready to unveil a new project, Deluca, an entrepreneur and owner of the Des Moines-based general contractor firm Southeast Constructors, said her vision for this space is simple: She wants to create an inclusive school to equip the next generation of young adults — young women, especially — with the right set of trade skills to work in construction.
Deluca was chosen as one of the Des Moines Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2023 because, come next year, she and her team plan to reopen the former elementary school at 1801 McKinley Ave. under a new name — the Iowa School of Construction — and welcome their first batch of students. The students, 20 of whom have already signed up, will take a 12-week course that includes lessons on the basics of carpentry, welding, masonry, power tools and other machinery. Registration is ongoing, with classes set to start in February.
“If you ever thought about building something, creating something, if you ever thought about buying a house or getting into flipping (houses), or if you want a job working for the city, or government or something construction-related, I would say this is your opportunity to get a feel for that,” she said. Tuition to the school, which received $50,000 from Iowa Workforce Development in 2022, is set at $4,200 for the three-month course.
And with Latinos making up at least 30% of the construction workforce, the school plans to offer classes in languages other than English to help students still learning the language. Deluca, who emigrated from Brazil to the U.S. two decades ago, will step in to translate courses into Spanish and Portuguese.
“People like Perlla, doing the school that she’s doing and offering different languages … it’s removing barriers,” said Brandon Patterson, who works for the Home Builders Association of Des Moines to increase the number of workers in the industry.
Construction industry scrambles to find enough workers
Deluca said the idea for the construction school came out of what she saw as a dire need in her industry.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic worsened a labor shortage, industry experts say builders already struggled to recruit and retain construction workers since the Great Recession. Hundreds of thousands of workers were let go or left the industry entirely after the housing market crashed in 2007, and firms felt the impact after the economy picked back up in the early 2010s, Patterson said.
To meet the demand for labor this year alone, the industry needed 650,000 more construction workers, according to the Associated Builders and Contractors. Rising inflation, demands for higher wages and an aging workforce are just some of the contributing factors to the shortage, ABC reported. The industry in recent years has seen a dip in younger workers and a greater proportion of older workers soon to be eligible for retirement.
That’s why Deluca, 45, created the Iowa School of Construction. She seeks to put the spark back into trade skills, encouraging the Des Moines metro’s young adults to explore careers in construction.
And she wants women to know there is a place for them there, too.
In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported about one in 10 construction workers was a woman — a figure that has seen little change in recent years. It reminds Deluca that there’s plenty of room for growth.
“There’s nothing women can’t do,” she said.
“I was in the field for years. I know it’s cold. I know we sweat. I know what we go through. I know how the guys treat us.”
She arrived in the United States with $100 and big dreams
Deluca always has been ambitious.
At 15, she decided Brazil was too small to hold her big dreams. An economy in flux was enough for her to want to leave her home country and family behind, setting her eyes on the United States.
“A lot of people ask: ‘Why do you come here?’ I said, ‘To make more money, to have a better life,'” she said.
Deluca was 20 when she first arrived in the U.S. in 1998 with $100 in her pocket and the will to work. She first came to Fort Lauderdale, where she stayed with a cousin for a week while chasing leads for jobs and a place to call her own.
For a few years, Deluca said she worked job after job after job. She cleaned houses and was a waitress and a cook. It wasn’t until she met Joseph Cichowski, a general contractor and former owner of Southeast Constructors, in Florida that her life and work began to shift. Cichowski hired Deluca, and she helped renovate residential homes, mostly by painting.
But Deluca wanted to do more.
In the construction industry, Deluca and Cichowski said, it’s all about taking initiative. There’s no one to really show you the ropes. You watch and learn and do. And you do it again if you don’t get it right the first time.
“The only way you’re going to fail is if you quit, right? You will get it sooner or later,” said Cichowski, whom Deluca tapped to teach and curate the curriculum for the construction school.
“When you’re trying to develop skills and everything, you have to be focused on that and you have to put your 100% in it,” he said.
Construction an ‘admirable’ career requiring knowledge, training
Cichowski and Deluca said construction workers oftentimes are stereotyped as people who weren’t good enough to go to college or needed a job just to make ends meet. Neither is true, they said.
Installing drywall, mixing and pouring concrete, cutting wood perfectly straight, operating heavy machinery like asphalt pavers or dozers, or even hanging shelves or a TV on a wall takes knowledge and training, they said.
“Construction is a career, and it’s an admirable one,” said Cichowski, 53, of Des Moines. “It’s noble. I mean, you’re building things. You’re building the roads we drive on. We’re building the bridges our families cross.”
Cichowski and Deluca moved both the business and themselves to Iowa a few decades ago.
Deluca collected more skills while working for Cichowski. With her confidence growing, she told Cichowski she no longer wanted to work for him, but rather with him. She wanted to be his business partner and decided to become a licensed general contractor.
In 2013, after collecting more than a decade of experience, Deluca made an even bolder move: She bought out Cichowski’s company and became the sole owner.
“He always says: ‘Now I work for you,'” said Deluca, laughing. “It’s true. I know he works for me.”
While Latinos make up a large part of the construction workforce, they remain underrepresented in management positions. Roughly 14% of construction managers are Latino, according to the 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women also are largely underrepresented in management positions at just 9%, according to Zippia, a career site.
“The misconception is it’s not a place for women,” Cichowski said. “I’ve been in plenty of meetings where government agencies had that attitude, and I don’t think it’s right. Perlla is testimony to that. It’s a male-dominated industry, but it shouldn’t be. Women can get involved.”
Construction field became ‘a steppingstone to something better’
Deluca said the Great Recession forced her and Cichowski to look beyond home renovations. Hungry for work, they landed on an opportunity to repair some brickwork destroyed by the 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids. They also picked up other projects in Iowa including restoring Normandy Drive in Iowa City, creating an ADA-compliant parking lot for Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, and resurfacing the deck of the Women of Achievement Bridge.
To date, Southeast Constructors has completed dozens of projects across five states.
Deluca remembered one particular project where her company was tasked to rehab the exterior of former President Harry Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri.
“I’m not even from this country, and they’re going to let me take a chance on burning the house,” she joked.
With a focus on the future, Deluca reflected on her career and her new school. She believes it’s her chance to pay it forward and lift up the next group of students — some of whom might be women or immigrants, or both like herself — who want a chance at a better life.
“I do think the fact that I did so many things helps me now, maybe with the students,” she said. “People ask (me): ‘Why the school?’ Because I was there. I was cleaning tables. I want to show them that you can do better — not that (there’s anything) wrong with cleaning tables. I’m just saying it’s a steppingstone to something better.”
Meet Perlla Deluca
LIVES: Des Moines
EDUCATION: Broward College
CAREER: Owner and president of Southeast Constructors
FAMILY: Three dogs — a 1-year-old Cane Corso; a 2-year-old Yorkshire Terrier; and an 11-year-old French bulldog.