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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Construction industry leaders launch program to attract young builders

Nazar Zuyev, 18, left, and his cousin, Zach Zuyev, 18, work Friday to cut and clear trees on a construction site in the 6600 block of North Conestoga Street in Spokane.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Nineteen-year-old Dylan Newman illustrates exactly the worker that Spokane construction industry leaders are targeting with a new program to boost trade skills at area schools.

Newman resisted the push to go to college and instead took a job right after graduating from Mead High School in 2021. He’s currently working for his uncle, framing and finishing steel roofing and siding on pole buildings.

“I’ve been doing it for a little over a year now,” Newman said. “I’m not just learning work skills but life skills, and how to work with homeowners.

“The normal thing for me to do was go to college,” he continued. “But the way I look at it, you get a head start at your learning and you are getting paid to do it.”

Last week, the Spokane Home Builders Association and the Inland Northwest Chapter of Associated General Contractors of American announced an effort called Frame Your Future.

Spokane Home Builders raised about $200,000 in local donations to fund curriculum at the high school level.

The first effort will begin with a two-year program at Innovation High School in Spokane, a charter school.

Brian Burrow, who sits on the board of directors for Innovation High School, said the money will fund a pilot program in which about 100 students will take part.

“This program was really born from the (industry members) here expressing here that they were having trouble finding qualified candidates,” Burrow said. “We decided to give students interested in the trades … a pathway.”

Jennifer Thomas, spokeswoman for the home builders association, said that many shop programs have been the first programs cut during budget shortfalls at Spokane Public Schools.

While the organizations work with partners to host two-day trade fairs and events, those doesn’t have the same effect as students learning hands-on skills before they graduate.

The construction industry in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area is suffering the same labor shortage as many places in the country, and it’s about to get worse, she said.

Thomas said about 23% of current contractors will reach retirement age within 10 years.

As schools have moved away from programs to train youths for a future in construction, the Frame Your Future campaign was designed to fill the void that’s been left.

“Instead of waiting for someone to save us, we created the solution we needed and now we are funding it,” Thomas said. “It’s good for the students, it’s good for the community and it’s good for the industry.”

Market influences

Thomas said the Spokane area is underbuilt by about 30,000 homes and the prices have gone up so much that only about 8% of Spokane families can afford to buy one at this time.

Joel White, executive officer for the Spokane Home Builders Association, said the lack of available labor has been part of the reason that prices of Spokane-area homes have gone up.

“It’s a supply-demand issue. When you don’t have enough skilled workers, their pay goes up and demand goes up and, consequently, prices go up,” he said. “It’s pricing families out of homeownership.”

At the same time, Spokane County has remained steady in the number of single-family home permits issued at about 1,500 a year for the past six years.

“COVID blew up everything,” White said. “We had a surprise in the industry. Buyers moved robustly into the market. They came with equity.

“I think the whole industry and community was caught off guard by how quickly they came into our community.”

Then supply-chain issues hit. Contractors who once could order a window on Monday and get it on Friday now have to wait months.

But the funding for the Frame Your Future curriculum, industry leaders hope, is a first step toward solving the one issue they can control: local labor.

“It’s going to take some time to change peoples’ perceptions,” White said. “The schools can put all the classes in they want, but if kids don’t want to be part of the construction industry, we can’t force them.

“What we can do is show them the benefits of the career. It’s a great opportunity,” he continued. “It’s one of the fastest career tracks to get into business ownership.”

Industry navigator

Cheryl Stewart, executive director of the Inland Northwest Association of General Contractors, said last week that her organization brought in a national spokesperson who said that nearly all construction firms nationally are hiring and 88% report having unfilled positions.

Stewart added that the same forces that are driving up the costs in the housing market are doing the same thing to commercial construction.

As part of the local push, she said the AGC has funded a position with WorkSource Spokane. That person, whom she called an industry navigator, will work specifically with those interested in seeking to join or moving inside the construction industry.

“They are the expert into how to get into the industry,” Stewart said of the position. “They will know who is hiring, what skills you need to have. That’s their role.”

Dylan’s message

Newman, the 19-year-old, volunteered to go back to Mead and tell his fellow students about his story.

He makes about $22 an hour and drives a company truck. He works for his uncle, Jim Warner, who owns Solid Structures, which is based in Colbert.

Warner, 46, also has a daughter who recently graduated from Gonzaga University with a degree in business that focused on marketing and finance.

“Dylan is making 20% more than she is with a four-year degree,” Warner said. “She’s not upset about it. But that’s just the reality. His demand is a lot higher right now than someone with a business degree.”

Warner said the building career is rewarding, but it also takes a physical toll on those who do it for years.

“We are stuck with a slew of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who need to get out of our industry,” he said. “We are stuck where we can’t move them into the office because we don’t have anybody moving in behind them learning how to build these houses.

“It’s imperative that we have the Dylans.”

Warner, who also owns two other construction-related businesses, said he makes the same or more money as several of his highly educated friends.

“It’s important for people to know that the trades are a great avenue,” he said. “Dylan wants to buy a home soon.

“I’d like to see him by the age of 22 or 23, when everybody else (in his class) is graduating from college, getting ready to buy his second home.”

And as for the current job market, Warner said, he would “hire 20 people tomorrow” if he had the chance.

“The construction field isn’t a lot of toothless wonders trying to collect their $20,” Warner said. “That’s how people viewed contractors before.

“Our guys are driving nice trucks, have vacations and paid holidays,” he continued. “They are career jobs.

“It’s nice to see the industry finally get to that point.”