Mathew Holmgaard saws lumber Wednesday afternoon for a project he and other students are working on in a high school vocational education elective class under way at the Kenai Peninsula School District's Workforce Development Center across from Kenai Central High School.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Eight hours a day for the next three weeks, local high school students will learn how to wield a hammer, build a window frame and man a power drill while cultivating a good work ethic.
In order to address a nationwide shortage of experienced construction workers, the Kenai Workforce Development Center, through a grant from the Department of Labor, is holding an intensive course that will give kids hands-on experience and let them explore a new career option.
“The idea is to get as much hands-on skills as you can,” said class instructor Steve Schoessler. He said students will be building a new fair booth for the Division of Forestry that will eventually stand on the Ninilchik Fairgrounds.
“(We’re) taking students through the planning stage and we’ll get as far as we can in a three-week period.”
Walt Ward, coordinator for the Workforce Development Center, said the structure will be either 20 feet by 20 feet or 16 feet by 20 feet.
“We haven’t got the final plans drawn up yet,” he said. “We’re still working on that.”
The structure will be built at the center and shipped to Ninilchik, he said.
The course was originally aimed at high school juniors and seniors and designed for more experienced students, Schoessler said, but because the class wasn’t established until the end of the year, the experience requirement was dropped and the course was opened to sophomores.
“We have some kids that have had the building trades class last year and we’ve had some other ones that have never held a hammer,” Ward said.
Many of the inexperienced kids are either home-schooled or come from charter schools, Schoessler said.
He said the shortage of construction workers could be related to the fact that the baby boomer generation is retiring.
With the shortage of experienced workers contractors have to hire entry-level employees and train them on the job.
“A lot of the contractors we’ve talked to would pretty much hire anyone who will show up and stay there and get something done,” he said. “They don’t have enough workers to fill all the spots.”
Another issue that contributes to the shortage of construction workers is the lack of funding for vocational classes. Schoessler said students are required to take different courses, which makes enrollment fluctuate.
“Years ago the construction class used to build houses,” he said. “Because of money and funding, you can’t get enough instructors.”
Bob Hammer, owner of Hammer Enterprises and member of the Kenai Builders Association, acted as a liaison between the development center and the Legislature in order to get funding for the course. He said he wants to get vocational programs back on track.
“We used to have shop classes in all the schools, but because of funding they cut them,” he said. “Other than going to Seward (the Alaska Vocational Technical Center), we don’t have anything that caters to kids that’s more advanced than building birdhouses.”
Hammer and the builders association has lobbied with the legislature to expand the development center in order to include more vocational courses.
“All of the industry is screaming for qualified workers,” he said. “If we ever build a pipeline, we don’t have enough welders to do it. You can’t hire a good carpenter. There just aren’t that many people to fill the jobs.”
In order to complete the class, Schoessler said students must score 80 percent in 30 competencies. These range from demonstrating the proper way to lift a heavy object to learning how to correctly read a tape measure to the nearest 1/16 of an inch.
Students also will learn how to handle tools safely, as well as how to write a resume.
When they’ve completed the course, they will not only earn half a high school credit in practical art, but also will receive a gas card and get to pick out their own tool belt.
“(Students) are able to go down to Home Depot and pick out the tools that would fit them best,” Ward said, adding that students also learn the difference between a good hammer and a bad hammer.
While the class may be half over, Schoessler said many students have expressed an interest in returning next year. He also anticipates a bigger turnout and a better class.
“We planned this class late in the school year,” he said. “Next year they have the whole year to think about it.”
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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