High-school students will get on-the-job training in new program
|Audrey Borders, owner of Borders and Son Quality Roofing, helped initiate Construction Careers Academy, which allows Whatcom County high-school students to learn careers in construction.|
High school wood shop class will never be the same.
Starting this September, the newly established Construction Careers Academy of Whatcom County will allow high-school students from anywhere in the county to learn the construction trade. The academy, which was formed by the Whatcom Tech Prep Consortium, along with local construction businesses and agencies, is one of a few programs in the area to join eight school districts and 12 high schools together in one program. The program has already enrolled its first 20 students for a two-semester course in everything from what to wear on a construction site to the basics of building.
The program arose from the rising demand for trained workers but declining emphasis in high school programs, said Linda Cowan, director of Whatcom Tech Prep Consortium.
Construction employment in Whatcom County in 2005 increased 28 percent since 2000, according to the Northwest Workforce Development Council. Employment is projected to increase 4.2 percent each year from 2004 to 2009. At the same time, many woodshop programs are being dropped from the area’s high schools.
“There was a big gap between what was happening in the labor force and what was happening in education,” Cowan said.
In 2005, Audrey Borders of Borders and Son Quality Roofing and Bill Quehrn, the executive officer of the Building Industry Association, approached Cowan with the idea for an academy to allow Whatcom County high school students to learn about careers in construction.
While there are still some high school wood-related programs in Whatcom County, such as those at Lynden and Nooksack high schools, Quehrn said they are only available to students at those particular schools. Students from every high school in the county can apply to attend this academy, which is held at Meridian High School due to the classroom availability and central location.
Functioning as a ‘mini jobsite’
For the two years before forming the program, Cowan, Quehrn, Borders and Liz Evans, northern district manager for the Associated General Contractors, worked to investigate similar programs and speak with employers and schools to understand how to get the most out of it.
“We found the need was greater than most high school programs could serve,” Cowan said. “So we looked at how we could do this on a county level.”
Cowan said the main goal from the beginning was to prepare students for the workplace. Employers told the group their biggest need was for people to come to work prepared for what it is like to work on a job site. Training for issues such as getting to work on time, on-site safety, working as a team, good communication and math skills help raise employability.
“Students need a solid foundation in the technical skills that are required to be a good worker,” Cowan said. “That was what we tried to address when we put together this program.”
Borders said the program will be treated as a mini job site.
“All the rules that apply to a job site apply to this course as well: responsibility, not being late, being clean and sober, and having reliable transportation,” Borders said.
The partnership between the Building Industry Association, which deals with residential development, and the Associated General Contractors, which works on major construction such as highways, allows the students to experience a breadth of projects, Quehrn said.
“Even though we serve different constituents, we came together and showed counselors from area high schools that this covers everything from refineries and major highways to remodeling family homes,” Quehrn said.
Taking a part in training
Evans said one of the most unique features of this program is the public and private partnership. Due to a gap in funding for schools, there was an instant roadblock for the program. The schools told the group they would have to provide the startup funding. While student fees cover some expenses, they needed more to go beyond the bare essentials for the program.
In response to the need, the program has received more than $28,000 in donations from businesses and organizations such as the Associated General Contractors’ Educational Foundation, Conoco Phillips Whatcom County Refinery, Building Industry Association members, and BP’s Cherry Point Refinery. Alcoa-Intalco Aluminum donated work boots for the students, and Wilder Construction donated hard hats.
This past fall, Gov. Chris Gregoire awarded $7,500 each to eight Washington high schools for pre-apprenticeship programs, and the Whatcom Tech Prep Consortium was one of those eight.
The Construction Careers Academy is community-oriented, with local employers involved as mentors, speakers and field-trip hosts, Evans said. The involvement of diverse groups is beneficial to all, she said.
“They are taking responsibility for their own job training,” Evans said.
At the completion of the course, students will not be highly skilled, Evans said, but they will be one step further toward an apprenticeship or on-the-job training.
The program is also not intended to replace a technical college or four-year college education. Evans said the construction sector still needs project managers, and more four-year programs in project management have appeared in the past few years. This is appealing to many employers, Quehrn said, who in the past would have to train on site and hope it would work out. This program places the students one step ahead.
Borders said the ability to hire someone out of this program is a plus because the students already have an idea if construction is a field for them.
“As an employer, a lot of times we get a young person coming in who thinks they want to be in construction. We spend money training them and then they realize it is not what they want to do,” Borders said. “With this program, they know whether or not they want to go into construction.”
Broad spectrum of interests
The program is a national industry-certified curriculum and features a paid internship for the second half of the course. Quehrn said they are trying to find internships that cover a broad spectrum to accommodate varied interests. The 20 students currently enrolled come from a variety of experience levels, and the program will accommodate and tailor to the students’ needs.
“We would like to retain as much flexibility as possible to be able to serve both the kids who signed up and the employers who want to contribute,” he said. “We need to have a solid foundation – just like a building – before you put up the walls. But we also want to see if we can keep those walls as flexible as possible.”
Of the 20 students, five are women, and Quehrn said the program advisory board is pleased with the diversity. Those women have positive role models in Borders and Evans, who are prominent construction owners, Quehrn said.
Cowan said the consortium has two other inter-district programs, including health-care services and video-game design. Consortium inter-district programs are initiated when there is an employer need, student interest, a skilled instructor who is not available at some high schools, and when the program is expensive for schools to run alone.
Cowan said the next step is to hire an instructor for the program, and classes begin in the fall. Then Whatcom County students will lace up their boots, don the hard hats and take classroom learning to the next level.