November 26, 2009 in Washington Voices

Building their skills

Vocational center teaches students construction trade by refurbishing home
By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photo

Spokane Vocational Skills Center school student Brian Hartmeier, left, adds water while instructor Chuck Sauer, second from left, demonstrates how to mix cement for footings for the new deck for the house being refurbished by student labor on the 2000 block of East Decatur Street in northeast Spokane. The house is owned by the city of Spokane, and a group of high school students will spend one to two years rebuilding the run-down structure, learning construction skills.
(Full-size photo)

More information

For more information about the Spokane Vocational Skills Center, go to or call (509) 354-7470.

In a small corner of northeast Spokane, a dilapidated house is slowly becoming a home. The house isn’t the product of an “Extreme Makeover” television program; it’s collaboration between the city of Spokane and the Spokane Vocational Skills Center construction class.

“The partnership is a winning combination for all involved. The city gets a run-down home back on the tax roll, a first-time homebuyer gets an opportunity to buy a home at an affordable price, and Skills Center construction students receive real-world training,” instructor Chuck Sauer said.

On a recent chilly November day, the sound of hammers and power tools filled the air as a group of students gutted the interior of the 1930s-era home. Outside, a second group of students set grade stakes in preparation for a concrete pad and a wraparound deck. The city of Spokane provides the materials; the Skills Center provides the labor.

“I’ve got 18 students in the morning class and 25 in the afternoon,” Sauer said. Three days a week the students travel by bus to the house on East Decatur Street. The other two days they spend at the Skills Center for classroom instruction. Sauer said representatives from a wide array of building trades come speak to the students. This serves a twofold purpose: The students learn about trades like plumbing and masonry, and they get to meet potential employers.

At the project house, 18-year-old Levi Ritterman paused from his labors to talk about the class. “This is what I do,” he said, tipping back his hard hat. “I’m mechanically inclined and good with my hands.” The whine of a power saw interrupted his reflections.

The shrill sound prompted Sauer to note that students must demonstrate mastery and be signed off on a power tool before they’re allowed to use it. “They actually have to take a test,” he said.

The class is a pre-apprenticeship program, and students receive an overview on everything from basic framing to deck building.

In addition, Sauer said, his class is co-enrolled with AmeriCorps. Students receive education awards for time spent in class that can be used toward any accredited school, including colleges and trade schools.

As a bitter wind whipped through the site, Sauer said, “This is real-world work conditions.”

Nick Stern, 17, didn’t seem to mind. “I like being outside way better than being cooped up,” he said.

Not only does the class provide a taste of construction trades, it offers the opportunity for students to learn teamwork. First-year students work as crew members, while second year students become crew leaders.

Apparently, they learn their lessons well. “Last year, I had four go right into the trades,” Sauer said.

For instance, 18-year-old Will Bridges said he’s already put his skills into practice. “I did carpentry and concrete work this summer, “ he said. He pointed proudly to his tool belt. “I bought all my own tools this summer and have a job lined up when I graduate.”

Stories like that are rewarding for Sauer. He’s taught construction skills for 17 years, the last two at the Skills Center. He said he strives to instill pride of workmanship in his students. And he likes to think that many years from now, students will drive past this home and remember the part they played in its transformation.

However, the work is a slow process. Sauer estimates it will be two years before the house is market-ready. But that’s OK with him. “They’re here to learn,” he said, gesturing toward his students. “The house is just the vehicle – the most important part is the learning.”

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