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Sue Lani Madsen: College isn’t for everyone seeking meaningful work, living wage

The drumbeat of “free college for all” plays off old stereotypes.

“When I talk to parents, it’s a tough battle,” said Mike Ankney, Director of Inland NW Associated General Contractors Apprenticeship Programs. “Everyone is pushed into, ‘You gotta go to college.’ When everything is said and done and your child is 22 or 23, what do you want for them?”

The answer is usually meaningful work and a living wage. It doesn’t always mean a college degree.

For a wide range of skilled crafts, the satisfaction of seeing tangible results and the demand for labor provides the meaning and the money without an overwhelming debt burden.

Doug and Kelli Kuykendall of Reardan have adult children heading down both routes to success. Their daughter Kaylene is an undergraduate at Washington State University working toward a future in medicine. It will take 12 years of school and as much as $500,000 in student debt, which she hopes to offset in part by grants and scholarships.

Her brother Colton has different interests and followed a grandparent’s advice. He’s completed Avista/Spokane Community College lineman school and is already working as an apprentice on his way to journeyman. His total cost for post-high school education was less than $14,000. It included $2,000 for a CDL, the commercial driver’s license required to drive big rigs, and $1,667 for tools.

Both are entering fields with high demand. We’re expanding access to medical education. But every news story about failing infrastructure and the affordable housing crisis can be tied back to the demographic facts of an aging construction workforce. The cost of college isn’t the problem – recruiting and respect are.

For every five workers retiring from residential construction, only one is coming into the field, according to Joel White, executive officer of the Spokane Home Builders Association. At its peak, Spokane was building 2,800 new homes annually. Construction has been flat at 1,500 units per year for the last four years due to lack of labor.

“There’s direct-hire opportunities and on-the-job training for anyone willing to show up on time with basic skills,” White said.

The SHBA is working on a job board to connect job seekers with its members.

The barriers to a direct-hire route are a reliable vehicle and tools. Every skilled trade requires a craftsman to own his or her own tools and “not all construction projects are on bus lines,” White said. The SCC apprenticeship program website estimates the average cost of tools for a general construction worker at $450. It can be a bigger barrier to boot-strapping out of poverty than finding college loans for a hundred times that amount.

When comparing apprenticeship to college, Ankney likes to talk to young people coming into the trades about the financial benefits.

“If they complete a four-year apprenticeship program, they’ll finish with $150,000 and a job,” he said. “Go to public college for four years and they’ll be $150,000 in debt, with a degree and no guarantee of a job.”

Ankney is a loyal WSU Cougar and agreed there are many good reasons to go to college, but it’s a misconception that construction is for dummies.

“There’s a lot of technology and you have to be able to think on your feet,” Ankney said.

Washington state law requires that 15% of the work hours on publicly financed projects be performed by apprentices.

“The north-south freeway, the CSO tanks, all the public school projects require 15% utilization,” Ankeny said.

It’s meant to entice new people into the trades by creating demand. Ankeny calls apprenticeships the world’s best-kept secret.

Apprenticeship first doesn’t mean college never. Students who have worked in construction before tackling first-year classes at the WSU School of Design and Construction stand out for their insights. Employers seek them as more valuable job candidates after graduation. Plus they have a well-paid skilled trade with opportunities for seasonal work to put themselves through school without debt.

College or not, skilled trades offer meaningful work at a living wage. White agrees that the Associated General Contractors and Associated Builders and Contractors both offer great programs for commercial construction trades.

“Some of those workers do end up coming into the residential field because commercial work may require more travel away from home, and that’s a quality-of-life issue,” White said. “If we don’t do something soon about our labor force, it will have a significant impact on our local economy and everyone’s quality of life.”

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