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April 21, 2021

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Trades offer opportunities in Clark County

Schools, parents, students should look at the building industry with new eyes

The Columbian
Published:
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Current Home Technologies, a specialist in custom audio-video and integrated systems with operations in Vancouver and Portland, is one of the many local companies that hire skilled trades workers.
Current Home Technologies, a specialist in custom audio-video and integrated systems with operations in Vancouver and Portland, is one of the many local companies that hire skilled trades workers. Photo Gallery

This article was submitted by the Building Industry Association of Clark County, a trade group representing more than 12,000 employees in the county’s construction industry.

Carpentry $51,079

Electrician $57,586

Brick masons $65,534

Painting $33,098

Plumbing $49,268

HVAC $48,558

Source: Washington Employment Security Department

Here’s where to find more information about career training opportunities in Clark County.

At a time when countless college graduates find that they are underemployed and saddled with crushing student debt, it is time for educators and policymakers to re-examine the widely held belief that a college degree represents the only road to success.

The building trades offer a great career path. Regrettably, fewer students are seeking careers in the construction industry. I believe that many parents and guidance counselors have not had the chance to see the tremendous opportunities that the trades offer and therefore have tended to steer students away from entering into a career pathway in the trades.

This is particularly unfortunate, given the shortage of skilled workers in the residential construction industry, and the fact that carpenters, electricians, framers, roofers and others in the field earn good salaries and express high job satisfaction.

This article was submitted by the Building Industry Association of Clark County, a trade group representing more than 12,000 employees in the county's construction industry.

As a builder and a successful business owner, I cannot help but reflect on how I found my way to construction. When I was a freshman at North Kitsap High School in Poulsbo, a serendipitous lack of class options occurred, and I was placed in a class called Trade, Industrial, Technical and Health Occupations. My instructor, Keith Kuniyasu, was adamant that I participate in what was then called Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, now known as Skills USA, a national student organization that develops employability, participatory and leadership skills to complement occupational skills developed in technical education classrooms or work-based sites.

During my high school years, I was enrolled between one to three hours a day in my technical class. This experience, along with the extraordinarily high standards of my instructor, taught me the critical skills needed for success in the workplace.

I trained on the job to frame houses, and the Local 29 Ironworkers apprenticeship made me a journeyman. None of that would have been possible without the fundamentals that I learned in the technical skills program.

I believe that if you took a poll of the majority of trade business owners, and even a majority of developers, most never went to college; they just started with a good job.

And good jobs are out there.

Construction grew by about 500 jobs last year in Clark County. The Washington Employment Security Department is projecting construction employment in the region to grow 35 percent between 2013 and 2023, versus 21 percent for all jobs. Nationally, Construction Labor Market Analyzer reports that “one-sixth of the workforce will leave the industry over the next decade. … More than 2 million new craft professionals will be needed in our industry by 2017.”

On-the-job training

Shane Tapani, vice president of Battle Ground excavation contractor Tapani Underground, learned on the job from his father.

His company prefers to hire students straight from high school or places such as Clark College.

Tapani trains them for positions based on their skills and aptitude.

“I’m looking for kids with common sense who are willing to work hard,” he said. “If you don’t mind breaking a sweat, you can make a good living for yourself in the construction field.”

Similarly, Ron Veach learned on the job from family. He now owns two Clark County companies: All County Plumbing and Tuscany Homes.

No stranger to hard work, he started his own plumbing business at age 18 and worked long hours seven days a week in the beginning. It took him a few years to make money, then he started building homes “on the side.” All of that investment has paid off with successful businesses that employ many of his family members.

Carpentry $51,079

Electrician $57,586

Brick masons $65,534

Painting $33,098

Plumbing $49,268

HVAC $48,558

Source: Washington Employment Security Department

His two sons, Josh, 22, and Cody, 21, now run the plumbing business, which allows Ron to focus on custom homebuilding, including his current Parade of Homes project.

When it comes to hiring employees, “we can’t find any plumbers,” he said. “They make a good wage, but it is terribly difficult to find skilled labor in this field right now.”

Recruiting workers

The labor shortages can be attributed in part to the fact that many skilled residential construction workers were forced to seek employment elsewhere during the Great Recession, when more than 1.4 million jobs were lost as builders across the nation were forced to shutter their doors or lay off workers. Many trades retrained their construction workers, and they are not returning to the housing sector.

Retirements will continue to compound the shortage. With only a small percentage of the construction workforce younger than 25, there is great opportunity to recruit young people. To attract younger workers, however, our industry has some barriers of perception to overcome.

“Over the next several years as we see the need for skilled workers in carpentry, electrical, and laborer positions grow, we will need to train workers to fill these jobs,” said Chelsea Chunn, director of Workforce Services for the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council. “From building bridges, and conducting road and infrastructure maintenance, to putting the final light fixture into a new apartment, the career opportunities in the construction industry are vast and ever growing.”

When asked about assumptions she encounters, Chunn responded, “Many young people still believe that working in construction means working in the mud and rain digging a ditch. This isn’t entirely true.” In fact, she said, “Digging ditches today is high-tech work in the construction trades. It requires machine programming and technical components to accomplish a job. It’s different than it was several years ago, and we need to recognize that and continue to build upon it.”

Training is vital

With the nationwide housing recovery now picking up steam, it is imperative that we train more workers and leaders in the construction industry.

The Clark County Skills Center has been offering career and technical education to high school juniors and seniors of 10 local school districts for 30 years. Despite its longevity, marketing the program to students is still a hurdle.

An even larger hurdle to many students who might want to pursue the trades is simply the structure of our education system today. It’s a system that definitely seems biased to moving students toward college, even when that might not be their interest or a possibility for their family.

Susan Dixon, director of College, Career and Technical Education for Evergreen Public Schools, said that state requirements for additional science, art and world language education tends to leave less space in a student’s schedule to take an elective course such as construction.

Here's where to find more information about career training opportunities in Clark County.

Bill Draper, construction technology instructor at the Skills Center, agrees. Draper said he sees kids who are really intelligent, but just not sparked by the traditional school setting. The array of programs at the Skills Center can help many youth find education that is meaningful to them, he added, but they get stuck in the drudgery of burning electives to try and stay on the narrow path prescribed to them to fulfill graduation requirements.

Changing attitudes

To meet the housing needs of a growing population, attitudes must change.

Parents, teachers, counselors and students need to understand and believe that a vocational education is just as worthwhile as a conventional four-year college degree, and that both routes offer satisfying career paths and financial gains.

Academic institutions can aid in this effort by funding and promoting more two- and four-year programs that cater to students interested in construction management and the building trades.

The housing industry also needs to work diligently to address the labor shortage. Our National Association of Home Builders created a workforce development arm, Home Builders Institute (www.HBI.org), which reaches 13,000 students nationwide each year. There are also 130 NAHB student chapters across the country. The Building Industry Association of Clark County hopes to work with local technical training resources in our community to bring an NAHB student chapter to Clark County.

Jack Harroun owns Jack Harroun Construction of Vancouver with his wife, Dana. He is president of the Building Industry Association of Clark County.

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