By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa
While everyone was quarantined and keeping six feet from each other, Perlla Deluca was busy building a school to help others build their future. Her dream became a reality in 2022 when the former Hoak Elementary School on Des Moines’ south side was converted into the Iowa School of Construction. The first class was selected in April and in July, this unique post-secondary trade school will graduate its first class of construction professionals, made up of nine men and three women – two of which are Latinas. “The purpose of the school is to give back by giving people a start. Construction is amazing. You can make a lot of money in it but it’s hard to get started,” says Deluca President and owner of Southeast Constructors, the company where she first started in construction when she was twenty years old and had only been in Iowa for five years. Over time, she bought more and more of the company until 2013 when she became the principal owner.
A native of Brazil, Deluca started as a housecleaner on newly constructed homes. She struck up a conversation with one of the construction workers near the house she was cleaning and learned there was an enormous pay gap between what she was doing, and the men in the building crew. She decided to try her hand at construction. Learning as she went, she was often the only woman on the construction site. She saw how most of the Latinos worked in lower paid positions but had talent and skills that could be an asset if given the chance. “That’s the thing with this school. How far can you go? The sky’s the limit when you learn a trade,” says Deluca. Her school gives Latinos and women an opportunity to grow in the field she loves.
Managing at least one-hundred projects at any given time, Deluca has experience not only on-site, but running the business. She is excited to pass along her expertise, alongside others who help students become certified in construction. They learn entry level skills while gaining practical experience that puts them ahead when building their career. The school is deliberate in teaching the most needed and widely used skills and does not teach any union trades like electrical, plumbing or welding. “We compliment the union trades because graduates will have site and hands-on experience,” says Deluca. July graduates earned a Certificate for General Construction Skills along with extensive OSHA-level safety training. “We want students to be at the federal level of OSHA safety training. We give them 30 hours vs. just the minimum.”
Deluca is excited to see her graduates start their careers with construction companies across the metro and the state. She has dozens of colleagues in the industry ready to hire graduates. The plan is that each employer sponsors a future student, helping to grow the school while creating more construction professionals. It was important to Deluca that the school be accessible and honor all backgrounds. She teaches some of the courses while other instructors have been with her company for years and were trained by Deluca. She is constantly on the lookout for more women to join her and the other female instructor. “Not everyone has access to education. I value life skills,” says Deluca of the students she hopes will enroll in her school.
Currently, there is a waiting list of 50 for the next class while Deluca works to secure funding to help with the investment cost per student. The total cost to attend is $4,200, which covers all the machinery, gear, and equipment they need, much of which was purchased by Deluca or comes from her personal supply of construction tools. Students do not have to buy anything; they only commit to completing the online coursework and 12-15 hours of classwork where they practice everything they’re learning. Employers can pay for their employees to attend, and Deluca is hard at work looking for partners to fund income-based scholarships to help students cover the cost, although no FAFSA is required.
When Deluca isn’t working in her pink hard hat on a construction site, she keeps active dancing salsa, hosting gatherings in her home, serving on boards like Goldman Sachs to help increase national contracts for women in construction, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa. She has been recognized for her work promoting women and minority businesses, most recently with the 2023 Mel Essex Award presented at the 2023 Black and Brown Business Summit in West Des Moines. The award was established to recognize business owners for their high standards of ethics and heart for inspiring and encouraging other entrepreneurs to fulfill their dreams for economic success.
If anyone is interested in enrolling in the next class, applicants must be at least eighteen years old, pass a physical, have a valid ID or copy of their birth certificate, and be able to commit at least fifteen hours a week to being at the school for the duration of the twelve-week program. There is no prior experience or minimum level of school completion required. Deluca personally interviews each applicant to determine their level of commitment before acceptance to the program. “My goal is to enroll more Latino students. The school focuses on women, Latinos, and minorities because they often have the least number of opportunities,” shares Deluca. She will open enrollment soon on the website www.iowaschoolofconstruction.com.