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Not your average student: Colleges and nonprofits prep workers for construction trades

Chris Kellie learns skilled electrician work at GRCC.

Despite shifting with technology and the economy, construction is a sector that remains constant in one vital area: the need for professional, skilled workers. Here in West Michigan, various programs offer training, either traditional or extraordinary, that equips those interested in construction with the skills necessary to enter the industry.
"It's almost impossible to pick what your average student looks like," says Scott Mattson, job training manager at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC). Referring to the college's construction and electrician training programs, Mattson echoes a sentiment of the construction industry in general: the workforce is constantly evolving. Despite shifting with technology and the economy, construction is a sector that remains constant in one vital area: the need for professional, skilled workers.

Whether these are young adults just out of high school, seasoned professionals changing their career trajectory, or returning citizens seeking a new and fruitful path after release from prison, construction laborers are eager and willing. They just need the tools to get started. Here in West Michigan, various programs offer training, either traditional or extraordinary, that equips those interested in construction with the skills necessary to enter the industry.

Mattson has been educating students at GRCC for 17 years, and has worked with very diverse groups. "You'll get anyone from just out of high school that doesn't want to pursue the traditional academic college path or is interested in the skilled trades, or someone who has been let go from a previous job and is looking to change trades entirely," he says. "It's such a wide variety."

Scott MattsonTo meet this varied need, GRCC offers two tracts: construction trades and electrical apprenticeship. The former is an intensive program akin to undergraduate work, demanding 34 hours of class time per week over 18 weeks, amassing just over 600 hours in training. "Those programs are really designed for someone who has never done that skill before," says Mattson.

Offering training in various skills such as concrete, carpentry, and first aid, the construction trades program is designed to prepare those previously unfamiliar with the industry for an entry level position in the field. After completing this program, says Mattson, "they've done the grunt work here already." However, "it is more than grunt work," he adds, noting that this program provides students with many soft skills, like completing assignments, showing up for work on time, and working with a team.

"We try to provide them with someone who can hit the ground…if not running, than at least walking," says Mattson.

GRCC also offers a less intensive electrical apprenticeship tract, which prepares electricians to achieve their journeyman's card, a special certification required by the state of Michigan to practice this trade. Students in this program are generally in their mid twenties, and have already chosen this specialty. Many times, they are already employed by an electrician as an apprentice, and this employer will cover their class fees.

"I think that it's starting to hit the workforce as the employers, especially right now in such a good economy, are having to explore what they've considered non-traditional routes, which has been really good for our students," says Mattson.

While the apprenticeship program runs about $800 and is most often covered by employers, the construction trades program runs between $6000-$7000, depending on Kent county resident status. Either way, this cost is far less than one year of pursuing an undergraduate degree in the U.S., which can run anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000. Whichever tract interested students pursue, "Financial aid is available for all of these programs," says Mattson.

With a goal of fully funding training programs for interested students, the Construction Workforce Development Alliance crafted a nontraditional training program called Jump Start. Designed for high school graduates, this exhaustive, 17-day, full-time program is offered in June of each year. A condensed version of the ABC Construction Core program from this local company, students enrolled will receive a comprehensive introduction to construction.

Learning to measure angles and cuts for framing is not as easy as it seems."Core teaches students the basics to be successful in the construction industry: how to work safely, teamwork, construction math, and basic blueprint reading. Students also graduate with several certificates including their OSHA 10 card, first aid/CPR card, and a rough terrain forklift license," says Jen Schottke, director of workforce development and external affairs at ABC Western Michigan.

The program is also heavily focused on each student's next step. "At the conclusion of the program we guarantee students interviews with at least two companies ready to hire entry-level construction employees," adds Shottke.

Each student attends the program for free, attracting those who opt out of a university education. "This program is available to 18-24 year old students. The vast majority of the students are graduating high school seniors, but we usually have one or two that have been out of school for a couple of years and are looking to start a career," says Shottke.

She has even begun recruiting with a Cleveland-based organization called Tools for Schools. This year-long program has increased Jump Start's placement rate in the past year from 25 to 78 percent, resulting in hires by Tradesmen International, Feyen Zylstra, Erhardt Construction, Elzinga & Volkers, and Old to Gold Hardwood Floors.

Students learn trade skills that are in demand and face chronic shortages.This focus on hiring and steady pay is precisely the mission of Next Step West Michigan, a faith-based nonprofit that specifically employs returning citizens, or individuals who have recently been released from prison or rehab programs. "These guys come to us with very little social capital," says Superviser Jonathan Peerboom. Essentially, they lack the connections, goodwill, and often work history of others because of their past.

Often receiving phone calls from potential employees while still incarcerated, Peerboom accepts eager workers with all sorts of histories. "I think the word is out on the street that we hire people that have criminal backgrounds," he says. "We're a place that's not going to judge them for their past."

Peerboom, who himself began in construction in 2002 with no working knowledge of the industry, understands the value of learning on the job. "The skill set is less important than the attitude that they bring to the workplace," he says. Teaching his employees everything from landscaping to carpentry to working with a drill press, Peerboom notes that the ability to learn is the most important skill. "If they're teachable and self motivated to get out there and make it happen, that's a really big deal."

Over the past nine years, Next Step's concept has caught on, enabling the nonprofit to function with 85 percent of its budget coming from customer invoices, and only 15 percent from community fundraising. Peerboom himself has seen great support for the nonprofit's mission, with clients hiring them specifically to contribute to their cause. "I think it's satisfying for people to know that there's this really satisfying thing in the neighborhood and they can support it really easily," he says.

In addition to improving the lives of their workers, Peerboom touts the quality of Next Step West Michigan's construction projects. "We do really good work," he says.

Whether they are learning on the job, signing up for a class, or participating in a short-term training program, construction is home to a bevy of educated and skilled workers. Grand Rapids might be experiencing a shortage of skilled labor, but with educational institutions and nonprofits rising up to educate the next generation, this may soon change. "Anywhere you look in GR or in Kent County you see cranes in the sky and buildings going up," says Mattson. "It is a field right now that is just booming."

“Constructing the future” is a new 12-part series from Rapid Growth that will explore issues facing, and related to, West Michigan’s construction industry and the numerous organizations, trends, and innovations seeking to create positive advances in our community. The series is sponsored by Triangle Associates, a West Michigan-based construction company that provides construction management, design/build services, general contracting, integrated project delivery, and more to projects locally and across the country.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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