G ary North started in the construction industry at an early age.
So he’s concerned, he said, when he sees too few young tradespeople stepping up to fill the jobs that retiring workers are leaving vacant. North, R&H Construction Co. vice president for Central Oregon, said the next generation is leaving paydays on the table.
“Yes, it’s hard work. You have to get up off the couch and quit playing video games to learn how to do this stuff,” he said recently, “but there are good jobs in the trades.”
In a booming economy, with low unemployment and more work than people to do it, a plumber, mason or electrician can make $75,000 a year, he said.
He should know. North, 48, worked his way up in the construction business from laborer to business owner to project manager for R&H and vice president. Along the way, he and his wife, Rachel North, started a family. Their two children are in college.
Moving to Bend had been a long-term goal, and it finally came to pass when R&H asked him to oversee its operations in Central Oregon.
R&H Construction has built projects large and small, from tenant improvements for Mother’s Cafe on Minnesota Avenue to a new warehouse for Deschutes Brewery to the five-story Moda building at 360 SW Bond St., where R&H also has its Bend office. North has been with the company for about 15 years, including a decade in Portland.
“Gary is a winner,” said Randy Williams, company chief financial officer. “Gary takes responsibility, and that’s just what he did. He jumped at the opportunity.”
North graduated in 1992 from California State University, Chico, with a bachelor’s degree in construction management and started a business building homes in Northern California before coming to Oregon for good. He sat down with The Bulletin to talk about his career. His responses have been edited for length and content.
Q: What about construction trades is failing to lure young people?
A: I have my own theories. I think there’s a lack of education about what the trades are. I just think there’s a lack of understanding out there because we’ve been pushing kids for so long to go to college that now, we’ve created a labor gap at the other end of the spectrum.
Nobody comes to my door and asks me for a job, wanting to get into the trades. So we’re looking at trying to create some kind of apprenticeship program (with Bend-La Pine Schools), an education program locally to, one, hopefully create a pipeline, and, two, provide that maybe-missing piece of education for these kids.
Q: You had your eye on a career in construction at an early age.
A: Yeah, I started in construction at probably 14. And I didn’t, at 14, think of it as a career. It seemed like a good way to spend a day and earn a dollar. Honestly, it was the camaraderie of a group of people I was around back then that made it fun. I’ve had different types of jobs, but I’ve been working in the industry 30-some-odd years.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in the Bay Area: Cupertino, specifically. That was right at the start of Silicon Valley and probably part of the reason I’m no longer there. It just got a lot bigger. When I was a kid, Cupertino was literally like the size of Bend or even smaller. It was full of fruit orchards and little kids riding bikes. We’d ride our bikes for miles, and miles and now, it’s not that way.
Q: How did you find your way to Bend?
A: The short version of the travel piece is that we had little kids. I had my own company in California. I was working seven days a week. My wife (Rachel North) wasn’t appreciating that as much as I was at the time. We determined it would be better for me to work for somebody else so I could have weekends off, spend time with the family.
I found a job in Bend as superintendent for R&H Construction 15 years ago or so, and I applied for and interviewed for R&H in their headquarters in Portland. The good news, bad news story was they wanted to hire me but they wanted me to come to Portland, which was fine. We spent 10 years in Portland with R&H, which was great. And as far as becoming a VP, I think from a leadership perspective, my heart and soul is in the company.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: There’s an ownership transition taking place within the company right now. A group of people within the company are becoming owners, I’m one of those. Having an ownership interest here in Bend for our Bend operation is a good thing. My intention is to stay in Bend and maintain my role here and hopefully be a big part of the community for 20 more years.
Q: What do you do when you’re not the vice president?
A: Get outside, mountain biking or hiking. I think spending time with family and friends outside almost anywhere for me is a good place to recharge. I just got back from Moab (Utah) two weeks ago. (We were there) for a week, but it should have been two weeks. It was on my bucket list, and it’s still on my bucket list to go back.
Q: Other than 360 SW Bond, what are some other projects R&H has undertaken in Central Oregon?
A: East Lake Village apartments, affordable housing (in Bend); we’re in the middle of another affordable housing project in Redmond, Crook Crossing. Sunriver Brewing, we’ve had a relationship with them and just finished doubling the size of their production facility. We did Humm Kombucha (when it expanded into a renovated facility on Brinson Boulevard). The allure of this business for me, more than building a building, is building those relationships and, again, becoming part of the community. I feel like every time I see those folks around town, we can laugh and smile and talk about things that aren’t necessarily building related.
— Reporter: 541-617-7815, email@example.com