Construction class helps build future

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2007

Kenai Peninsula high school students are not only building a booth for the Kenai Peninsula State Fair in a construction class this summer; they’re building their futures, as well.

The Kenai Workforce Development Center is offering a class teaching carpentry skills, like how to measure properly and use tools safely, to sophomores, juniors and seniors. When finished with the three-week class, participants will be well on their way to jobs in the construction industry when they graduate, if they so choose. If another field captures their attention, this class still provides valuable lessons in working, whether with screwdrivers or spreadsheets. Students also learn how to write a resume and the simple virtues that come with holding down an eight-hour-a-day job, like showing up on time and putting in a full day’s work.

As good as the class is for the kids, it’s even better for the community. The construction industry is suffering a lack of workers — qualified or not. Walt Ward, coordinator for the Workforce Development Center, sums up the grim state of the building trades in Alaska.

“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.”

The decline in the construction work force is caused in part by a decline in training available to aspiring carpenters. As the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s budget has become more crimped over the years, vocational education was one of the areas to be cut. Schools still have some shop classes, AVTEC in Seward offers instruction in building trades and Kenai Peninsula College has classes in welding and fabrication, but for the most part the only training a prospective carpenter can get is on the job, and that simply isn’t as feasible as it once was. Established carpenters already have work stacked up in Alaska’s short construction season, leaving them little time to show a trainee how to hold a hammer, much less more complicated skills.

It also doesn’t help that the Baby Boomer generation is retiring, and the working generation coming up is more interested in technology- and business-related jobs than manual ones.

But those computers have to sit in a building somewhere, and someone has to build it.

And there’s more to be built in this state than houses and office buildings. If the natural gas pipeline gets a green light, it will create a building boom to rival the oil pipeline days. Just like with the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, it’s looking like Alaska won’t have enough workers to fill the available jobs, drawing in workers from out of state.

That would be a shame. Visitors are good for the tourism industry and workers choosing to make Alaska their home are welcome, but itinerate workers coming in just for a job and leaving with the money they make off it do not benefit the state. It would be much better for our communities, schools and state if the construction needs of the gas pipeline, or any other building boom, can be met with Alaskans who buy homes and groceries, put kids through school and eventually retire here.

Now’s the time to start preparing Alaskans to meet those needs. Jobs is the answer to keeping our kids here, instead of losing their talents and energy to the Lower 48. But it’s more than just having jobs available. Kids need to be able to land and keep those jobs, and that means training must be available to them.

Programs like the construction class at the Kenai Workforce Development Center is one of the building blocks toward making that — and a more prosperous Alaska — happen.

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