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Front & Center: Instructor helps build careers – class by class

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 11, 2017, 9:27 a.m.

Matt Piekarski is director of North Idaho College’s carpentry program. He is photographed at the shop in Coeur d’Alene on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. (KATHY PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Matt Piekarski is director of North Idaho College’s carpentry program. He is photographed at the shop in Coeur d’Alene on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. (KATHY PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

COEUR D’ALENE – It’s fair to say Matt Piekarski was underqualified for his first job.

Hired as a handyman by an emu rancher, the 14-year-old knew little about carpentry and even less about emus (large, flightless birds raised for their lean red meat).

“My friend got a job there first, and they needed another person. But when it came to hammering boards onto a fence, I couldn’t hit a nail worth a darn.

“So after work that first day, I went home and started pounding them in for practice.”

Piekarski discovered he enjoyed working with his hands. He went on to launch his own construction business and now runs North Idaho College’s carpentry program.

Each year, students build a house, which is raffled off in the spring to fund scholarships through the NIC Foundation.

And if they, too, discover they like working with their hands, there’s no shortage of career opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 225,000 construction-job openings went unfilled in June.

“Carpenters are retiring, and there aren’t enough people to take their place,” Piekarski said.

During a recent interview, he discussed who’s best suited for the career, entry-level salaries and HGTV.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Piekarski: In the Seattle area.

S-R: Where was the emu ranch?

Piekarski: Between Bothell and Mill Creek, just east of Seattle. Now the area is developed, but back then it was semirural.

S-R: You and your buddy were just kids. What was your biggest screw-up?

Piekarski: (laugh) There were quite a few. Once we flipped a tractor. But working there led me to this career.

S-R: What other summer jobs did you have?

Piekarski: I was a laborer for a construction company.

S-R: Were your parents handy with tools?

Piekarski: My dad tinkered around, but he worked for the Food and Drug Administration. My mom teaches math.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?

Piekarski: Not really. My school didn’t offer wood shop, so mostly I focused on getting to college.

S-R: Where did you go?

Piekarski: I attended WSU, planning to major in business. During breaks, I worked for a fire-and-water damage restoration company in Everett – lots of odd jobs – and that further piqued my interest in construction.

S-R: Did you have any mentors?

Piekarski: The manager of the restoration company was a great mentor. He emphasized the importance of showing up on time ready to do whatever needs to be done. On construction sites, there’s always something you can be doing other than hanging around. I try to instill that work ethic in my students.

S-R: Did you graduate from WSU?

Piekarski: No. I studied construction management, but didn’t think I had enough hands-on skills. So I went to work for a custom homebuilder in Spokane, then enrolled in the carpentry program here at NIC in 2008.

S-R: Just as the housing market collapsed. How many students were in the program?

Piekarski: Only four of us. I was the oldest at 27. Normally, they’d shut down a program with so little interest. But we have a close relationship with the NIC Foundation and its annual house raffle, so we were able to keep going. And it’s picked up since then. This year, we have 12 students, from 18-year-olds all the way up to retirees in their 60s. The younger ones either want to work for someone or start their own business. One of my more mature students wants to build his own cabin.

S-R: Any women students?

Piekarski: We have two this year. Last year, I didn’t have any.

S-R: How long is the program?

Piekarski: Potentially two years. We accept students regardless of skill level. Those who have never touched a circular saw go through a four-week summer session to become familiar with power tools. First-year students build the house and earn a certificate. Second-year students focus more on construction management.

S-R: What’s the attrition rate among students?

Piekarski: Last year, I started out with 12 and ended up with seven.

S-R: What drew you to education?

Piekarski: After I finished the program in 2010 and started my own business, I worked as a lab aide for the previous instructor, Dave McRae. When he left in 2016, I closed my business and took over the program full time.

S-R: You left WSU early. Did you eventually go back to college?

Piekarski: Yes, two years ago I earned an environmental science degree with an emphasis on energy-efficient building from the University of Idaho.

S-R: You didn’t take formal education classes. Was there a learning curve when you switched to teaching?

Piekarski: There was, still is, and probably will always be. I have to remind myself never to assume students know something I take for granted.

S-R: Do students think they know how to use a tool properly when they don’t?

Piekarski: All the time.

S-R: There’s also the risk factor. Your predecessor lost a finger when it was pinched between two roof trusses.

Piekarski: This is dangerous work. We’re on ladders and roofs. Fortunately, the worst thing that’s happened since I’ve been here is someone hitting their thumb with their hammer.

S-R: Most educational situations involve trial and error. What mistakes have your students made?

Piekarski: It seems every year someone cuts through the cord of a circular saw.

S-R: Have you ever cut a cord?

Piekarski: (laugh) I’m sure I have. Every carpenter does sometime in his career.

S-R: What did you like most about being a general contractor?

Piekarski: I enjoyed being my own boss.

S-R: What did you like least?

Piekarski: The fact that there’s more work involved than most people realize. I was the salesman, the secretary, the supervisor, the labor … everything.

S-R: The construction industry has turned around dramatically in recent years. What’s a typical starting wage for your graduates?

Piekarski: We’re really preparing students for entry-level jobs, which pay about $15 an hour in North Idaho. If you jump over the border into Washington, I’m guessing it’s $2 or $3 higher. Once you demonstrate you know what you’re doing, your wage goes up.

S-R: What industry changes have you observed?

Piekarski: Fewer people are choosing to go into construction, for one thing. I have nothing against higher education, but you don’t need a four-year degree to do this. Granted, entry-level pay isn’t high, but the potential down the road is pretty good.

S-R: How else has the industry evolved?

Piekarski: Energy-efficiency is much more important today. Solar panels. Insulated concrete forms. Much better cordless tools.

S-R: You teach carpentry. Who handles the other trades on your raffle houses?

Piekarski: We sub out HVAC (heating and cooling), electrical, plumbing – those sorts of things.

S-R: What will your students build this year for the raffle’s 25th anniversary?

Piekarski: A house just over 2,000 square feet – no basement – with a three-car garage.

S-R: Will they complete the house before they graduate?

Piekarski: Usually we’re pretty close. My lab assistant and I spent a month finishing last year’s house.

S-R: Labor is a big part of homebuilding costs. Yet your students pay a little over $3,000 a semester for the privilege.

Piekarski: (laugh) And they remind me of that all the time.

S-R: Are your houses as well built as other spec homes?

Piekarski: Yes. We get inspected throughout the process, just like everyone else.

S-R: What’s a day in NIC’s construction program like?

Piekarski: Generally, we have a lecture in the morning, then go out to the job site. Sometimes we ride along with a city building inspector to check out other jobs.

S-R: What about your job are you most proud of?

Piekarski: People might think it’s the house we build, but I’m most proud of the students we send into the field.

S-R: How have you influenced the program?

Piekarski: I’m revamping our second-year curriculum to be more in line with a four-year construction management degree, so our students can apply their NIC credits toward a bachelor’s.

S-R: What has surprised you since taking over?

Piekarski: After working with Dave for eight years, I thought I knew what I was getting into. But when you’re the one up front, it’s totally different.

S-R: Do students ask questions you can’t answer?

Piekarski: Sure. When they do, we Google it together, which is another learning opportunity.

S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?

Piekarski: That I’m more patient than I realized.

S-R: What sort of person is best suited for the building trade?

Piekarski: Someone who likes working with their hands and solving problems. It also helps to enjoy working outdoors, no matter the weather.

S-R: Besides NIC, where can young people learn these skills?

Piekarski: We’re the only program like this in Idaho. The Spokane Home Builders Association has an apprenticeship program. You don’t need to go through our program or an apprenticeship, but without a piece of paper, you’ll always start at the bottom.

S-R: Are there common misperceptions about your trade?

Piekarski: A lot of people think carpentry is just swinging a hammer. They don’t see all the math and geometry and material estimates that go into this. Building a house isn’t rocket science, but it’s not HGTV, either.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.