Porter Soley measures his son Daniel's completed composite project at the SkillsUSA  competition in Kansas City.
Porter Soley measures his son Daniel's completed composite project at the SkillsUSA competition in Kansas City.

For nine of the past ten years, a student at Pearl River Community College, Poplarville, Miss., finished first in the state's masonry competition and advanced to the nationals in Kansas City, Mo. The only year a student wasn't first, he finished second, and that was following Porter Soley's first year as the masonry instructor at his alma mater.

At the annual masonry contest, held in conjunction with the SkillsUSA National Leadership Conference, six of his nine students have finished with a “Top 10” score.

When Soley enrolled at Pearl River as a student in January 1971, his intention was to be a teacher. “I liked working with my hands so much that I completed the masonry curriculum,” Soley said. He worked in commercial, industrial, and residential masonry, serving his apprenticeship through the Gulfport Bricklayers & Craft Local, earning his journeyman's card in 1975. Ten years ago he returned as the masonry instructor of the brick, block, and stone program at Pearl River Community College.

Soley also maintains his own masonry business, which he works during the summer and spring breaks. “I've always got projects,” Soley stated. “Everybody in the area knows me and my work. It keeps my skills up, and I often have a chance to work with my own students.”

The instructor's students work with brick, concrete and glass block, tile, terra cotta and stone. The program provides training in brick and block laying, masonry construction, masonry mathematics, estimating, blueprint reading, advanced brick and block laying, and fireplace and chimney construction. Upon completion of the nine-month program, the students are awarded a certificate of proficiency and usually have a job offer.

The masonry program began in 1965, but has been particularly successful during Soley's tenure. It serves 15 - 20 students per year, but last year's graduating class was only 14 because a number of students had to drop out and go to work when Hurricane Katrina hit. “Usually about one-third of my students have been in the workforce (not masonry),” according to the instructor. “They are usually my better students, and realize that masonry is a good chance to make a nice living. Within nine months, many of them have doubled their wages.”

Soley pointed out that recruiting is always a challenge. “However, many local contractors have come through this program, and always look here first for their new employees,” he said.

“And it works the other way too,” he continued. “Because so many of the local contractors were students here, they help us recruit new masons.”

Looking back through the years, Soley remembered that it is not always easy. “Every year, it seems, I have a challenging student. I remember one with attention deficit syndrome. Another student struggled with the necessary skills, but he worked hard and today is making a good living in the trade. I find it very rewarding when the kids come back and say, ‘I'm sure glad I listened to you'.”

And education is not all about brick and block. “I try to teach them some practical ‘life skills' beyond the details of masonry,” Soley explained. “I teach them to be committed to their work, to put quality first, and to be on time.”