Words: Vanessa Salvia
Photos: SPEC MIX
Since 2003, the “supermasons” of the world have been found and honored through the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500. The first event was held in the Silver Lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center at the World of Concrete trade show. By starting the bricklaying competition, Spec Mix wanted to demonstrate the craftsmanship and stamina of masons worldwide. They’ve since added regional qualifying competitions, and today the event is a great attraction, drawing thousands of in-person and online viewers every year. Each event has continued to be held at World of Concrete, including the 2021 event, scheduled for Wednesday, June 9, during World of Concrete’s rescheduled 2021 dates.
The biggest competition in the masonry industry is such a huge draw that the Spec Mix Jr. Bricklayer 500 was an inevitable expansion. New in 2019, Spec Mix began hosting the event for younger competitors and Masonry Education Day expos at selected regional venues to target high school and apprenticeship students. Junior competitors have 20 minutes to build an 8-foot 8-inch wide double wythe wall with 12 bricks per side from a 9-foot 4-inch starter wall.
High Stakes Masonry
In the adult Bricklayer 500 competition, the stakes are high — each participant is challenged to build a 26-foot 8-inch double wythe brick wall in one hour with precision craftsmanship. Out of the regional competitions, the winning team advances to Las Vegas-based on a determination by a judging panel that decides which wall is the best. The World Championship winner receives prizes including a new Ford F-250 4×4 truck, a Roxor Crossover Utility Vehicle, Multiquip Mortar Mixer, and many other awards, totaling more than $125,000.
To encourage interest in the trade among the younger competitors, winners of the SMBL 500 Regional Series spend time with the junior contestants to get to know them, coach them and share their tips for the best performance. Brian Carney, Spec Mix vice president, says they started the Junior competition as a workforce development initiative. It was a success right off the bat.
“We just thought that there was no reason why the younger generation couldn’t take part in this kind of a momentum-building workforce development initiative, so we started doing the Junior Bricklayer 500 at the regional competitions where we knew we can get high schools involved, their instructors would be there, and the local masonry community would be there with support.”
The effort was about allowing high school students or younger bricklayers to compete with their peers and create awareness at the high-school level apprentice-level that other forms of training and competing are available.
In 2020, regional events were held in Colorado, East Tennessee, North Texas, and South Carolina. “What’s cool about this is that this was originally started by folks in North Carolina at the regional competition in 2018,” says Carney. “They had Masonry Day and had so many high school kids showing up at the regional competition to watch the journeyman competition.”
That gave everyone the idea that many youngsters wanted to compete at the high school level if they had a smaller wall and a shorter competition time. Spec Mix sets up a U-shaped starter wall that eliminates many time-consuming parts of building a wall. The student competitors are given 20 minutes to fill in the brick between the block columns with a 5-minute rest period and a 10-minute tooling period. For the laying portion of the competition, competitors will work from one side of the wall. For the tooling portion of the competition, competitors will work from both sides of the wall.
Carney said when this was introduced, they had a limit of up to 10 high schools out of the 75 in North Carolina. “Almost all the high schools wanted to take part; that’s how big of a deal it was,” he says.
Building a World-Class Competition
With help from Ryan Shaver, the national director of sales and training for the ProBlock Masonry Wall System and workforce development and training coordinator for the North Carolina Masonry Contractors Association, Spec Mix developed a manual and rules for the junior competitions to turn it into a full-blown program.
“What’s interesting is that when we had these junior competitions at a regional event, almost every time we would get more media attention, whether it was live at the event or covering it post-event,” says Carney. “The media loves to share stories about any kind of workforce development initiative or campaign going on, so this works well for the whole masonry industry and the Junior Bricklayer 500.”
Competing in 2021
Last year’s journeyman and junior Bricklayer 500 was held in the parking lot during World of Concrete in January, as usual, just before the world started to experience coronavirus-related shutdowns and cancellations of events. Things are different in 2021, and although World of Concrete is being planned as an in-person event, dates have been moved back from January to June.
This year, the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 takes place on June 9, during World of Concrete’s scheduled dates of June 7 through 10. “The plan is to have some semblance of a Junior Bricklayer 500 there,” says Carney.
School is not in session at that time, so the schools probably won’t get involved and endorse the student competitors as they have in the past. Carney hopes to put together an event with young masons who are 19 years of age or older who have more autonomy about where they travel and with whom they interact.
“We’ll probably have to have some kind of a selection process because I don’t know that we’ll be able to have more than about ten competitors and walls in Las Vegas,” he says.
It Almost Didn’t Happen
Trey Harris, Southwest Regional Bulk Sales Manager of Quikrete (a partner of Spec Mix in a different charitable event), Bricks, Blocks and Bags for Bikes, lauds Carney as one of the leaders in getting the junior program off the ground. Harris says that in the last year, the Texas Masonry Association has focused more on workforce development. COVID-19 almost canceled COVID-19 canceled the Dallas Bricklayer 500 (October 8, 2020); Harris reached out to all the Dallas-area instructors and asked if they would still bring their students. Unfortunately, most of them said no, because they weren’t permitted to do field trips. Even the Dallas United Masonry Contractors Association instructors, which has a masonry school, said no.
“I felt bad for all these kids because they worked so hard this year to improve their skills, and the field trips are getting canceled,” Harris says. “So I reached out to Brian and Nick [Nick Blohowiak, national sales manager of masonry products for Spec Mix] and said, ‘Look, our kids cannot attend our Bricklayer 500, so I want to do a separate event, just for the junior bricklayers so that we can at least keep the workforce development program going.'”
He received permission to go ahead and do it with social distancing and mask measures in place on November 12, a month after the journeyman competition, and got close to 30 entrants. Due to restrictions, participation cuts off at 21.
“But, we had 21 competitors from seven or eight different contractors, plus the high school,” Harris says. “It turned out to be a really good event, even with everything we had going on.”
Something To Aspire To
Even though this year’s Junior Bricklayer 500 won’t be as big of an event as in years past, what won’t change is that being part of the junior competition and getting to know the veterans in the trade gives the younger generation something to aspire to in the future.
Knowing how important an event like this is to training and supporting the future generation makes sponsors want to supply the junior competition with everything it needs. The success of an event like this, especially one that grew from a small regional event into a national event so quickly, takes the whole industry supporting it.
“The Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 started in 2003, and over the years, it’s benefited from the whole industry pulling together, but the Junior Bricklayer has kind of taken that to a whole other level in that everybody’s rallying behind it,” Carney says.
It’s less about companies trying to promote their brands, and instead, it’s all about promoting masonry construction and masonry as a career. “It’s just phenomenal,” Carney remarks.