SunWest Builders owner Steve Buettner has been working in construction since he was a high school student, but starting Monday evening, he’ll be at a new kind of job site.
Buettner and Jeff Deswert, president of Kirby Nagelhout Construction, are the lead instructors for a six-week, noncredit course in construction basics at Central Oregon Community College in Redmond.
“We’re actually going to build things,” Buettner said. “We can relay our stories of how to succeed in the business.”
Community college courses are often taught by experienced professionals, but the fact that two construction industry executives stepped up to teach reflects the sense of urgency behind the new course, said Rachel Knox, continuing education program manager at COCC. Not only does the industry lack enough people to do the labor, but people who are hired have to learn on the job, she said. That’s expensive to employers, and it doesn’t provide what educators call a “well-lit pathway” for workers, she said.
“What we’re seeing in the workforce right now is people are devoid of knowledge,” Buettner said.
So for two hours, two nights a week, a class of 14 students, many of whom are already working for local construction firms, will learn how to read blueprints, do construction math, prevent on-the-job injuries and use tools and materials.
Buettner acknowledges that one six-week course won’t produce journeymen.
“We’re both pretty passionate about our goal, which is to introduce people to the construction industry,” Deswert said.
COCC’s goal is to create a noncredit certificate program, accredited by the National Center for Construction Education and Research, that would cover skills such as tile setting, drywall installation, masonry, rough carpentry and finish carpentry, Knox said.
“We want to hit everything that doesn’t have an apprentice program,” Deswert said.
Central Oregon Carpenters Local Union 271 offers apprenticeships in Central Oregon, service representative Garth Finley said. Apprentices learn while working on the Facebook data center expansion in Prineville and attend classes at the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute in Portland one week per quarter, he said. The union also has a training center in Redmond, which holds classes once a month, he said.
The COCC program has received almost $50,000 from Central Oregon construction firms. In addition to Kirby Nagelhout and SunWest, Griffin Construction, Hayden Homes, Northwest Framing Systems, Miller Lumber and CS Construction are contributing expert instruction, money, tools and materials, according to a press statement from COCC.
COCC hopes to launch the certificate program next spring, Knox said. She’s spreading the word to Central Oregon career and technical education instructors and hopes to reach people who missed those high school programs. “Some folks don’t figure out what career they want to pursue until their mid-to-late 20s, or later,” she said.
Oregon has recovered all the construction jobs lost during the Great Recession, said Damon Runberg, Central Oregon economist for the Oregon Employment Department, but Deschutes County is about 20 percent below the previous peak. In 2006 and 2007, Deschutes County had an average 8,100 construction jobs, he said. In 2017 through the early part of this year, the average was just under 6,500.
“In the last year we had gangbusters growth in the industry,” Runberg said. “We added 680 jobs (in Deschutes County).”
The industry lacks experienced labor because many people who were working when the last recession hit went into other professions, Runberg said. At the same time, the workforce is aging, he said.
While the labor shortage affects job sites across Central Oregon, Runberg said construction is faring better than other industries in attracting applicants.
“There has been a huge exodus of people moving out of more seasonal, lower-paying industries into construction right now,” he said. “We’re seeing the market working. Maybe it’s not working as fast as people would like it to.”
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