Positions in skilled construction trades offer an abundance of openings, good pay, benefits, decent job security and training that costs a fraction of college tuition. All the industry needs is applicants.
“It’s kind of been a forgotten area,” said Wayne Brokaw, executive director of the Inland Northwest Association of General Contractors.
The number of apprentices in the building trades has declined in the last five years, Brokaw said as he supervised students from all over the region trying out backhoes, bulldozers and other heavy equipment on display at Construction Career Day at the Spokane County Fairgrounds.
On top of that, the industry predicts 40 percent to 50 percent of those holding jobs in all construction trades will retire in the next 10 years.
“We can’t react to a shortage just like that,” Kevin Managhan, training director of an electricians apprenticeship program. It takes five years of on-the-job and classroom experience to become a journeyman electrician. Accordingly, unions and employers alike have ramped up efforts to recruit more people in the field fast enough to replace retiring workers and keep up with the booming construction market.
Representatives from a broad range of fields offered information to students as they roamed among demonstrations that included concrete work, metal fabrication and soil analysis used in geotechnical engineering.
Many have traditional apprenticeships that offer a chance to earn a living and train for a career at the same time. The cost of classes and books for duration of an apprenticeship might equal the cost of one semester at a university, and apprentices usually enjoy insurance benefits during their training.
Then there’s the job itself.
“I just love it because you’re not sitting at a desk and you’re actually doing something,” said Eric Anthony, 20.
It’s also satisfying to see something built and know you had a part in its being there, said Jesse Champion, 20.
Both were among the first to complete a new two-year, pre-apprenticeship program in Spokane Public Schools. Now they are helping build a six-story residential building on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
“There is a huge need for this in the community,” said Lisa White, director of career and technical education for Spokane Public Schools.
About 550 students from community colleges and high schools in Spokane and as far away as Kettle Falls came to the two-day event, she said.
If all of them went into the trades tomorrow, it’s likely every one of them could find work with the 606 new construction-related companies formed in Spokane County in the last year alone, according to the Washington Employment Security Department.
Technological advances in the construction industry also mean that most work in the field goes beyond swinging a hammer or pouring concrete.
“Space weather concerns me now,” said Todd Emerson, a surveyor for the Department of Transportation.
Satellite-based global positioning systems, complex geographic software and a host of other new technology are among the tools he uses to map out a landscape prior to construction.
On a given day “we’re never doing the same thing,” he said, which is one of the things he enjoys about the profession.
Interest has fallen off, though. The average age of a licensed surveyor in the United States is about 60, Emerson said, and Friday’s event was the latest in efforts locally to draw new people into the field.
“We’re in trouble if we don’t get young people interested,” he said.