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Dirt to Doorknobs: Carpentry Technology at Green River Community College

We live in a society that undervalues blue-collar work. In the late 80s and early 90s, when computer technology grew by leaps and bounds, industrial arts classrooms were turned into computer labs; students were taught that a four-year degree was the only accepted path after high school. Today, we see a huge increase in the number of college graduates that cannot find a job in their field because a flood of new graduates—in addition to the existing workforce—are competing for the same job. Not only are these graduates jobless, but they are also burdened with student loan debt so high that it may not be paid off in their lifetime. The cultural push towards earning a four-year degree has failed—not everyone needs a college degree to succeed.

Thankfully, there is hope. And we don’t have to look far.

A Note from the Publisher:

This article is part of a series profiling trade schools around the country, inspired by Gary’s 2011 article on The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades. As Gary wrote in that article, “In the modern world, we value college degrees over trade-school know-how; our educational system—and our country—pays the price.” There are great number of quality vocational programs in America, and they provide us with “good examples of effective education, education that actually works, where success—both for educators and students—is easy to track.” In this series, we will be visiting and profiling those schools.


Students seeking an alternative to the four-year degree will find many reputable and highly respected vocational schools still available. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics reporting in 2009, most of the jobs that will open up in the next few years do not require a Bachelors Degree. In fact, only about 25% do. The other 75% need on-the-job training—something only good vocational schools provide. In the construction field, employment is projected to increase by 13% from 2008 to 2018, expanding by more than one million new jobs.

In the 60s, a vocational education for most industries was a stepping-stone into a well-paid career; applicants began their careers skilled and educated in the field. Production soared. That is still the goal of vocational schools: to send educated workers into their chosen field with the skills and techniques they need to succeed on the job. And even better, the cost of a vocational education is only a fraction of the cost of college education. But students beware! Choose your schools wisely.

One reputable school is Green River Community College (GRCC) in Auburn, Washington. As Program Coordinator and Lead Instructor of the Carpentry Technology program, Glen Martin trains motivated students in core residential carpentry skills. Full-time students can earn an Associates Degree (AAS) in Residential and Light Commercial Carpentry. In less than one year, full-time students develop solid basic carpentry skills and knowledge to build a home from foundation to interior finish. Instruction takes place in the classroom and in the well-equipped carpentry lab. Students put instruction into practice at the off-campus job sites for private customers, or for contractors, building “live” projects.


(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

For part-time students, Green River also offers a proficiency program—supported with certificates of completion.

According to Glen, the majority of students attending his day program are high school graduates working minimum wage jobs. And these students are motivated—they are serious about education, they are serious about finding a better career, and they are serious about improving their lives. Martin believes in developing character, too, and that means establishing a strong work ethic. As Glen puts it to his students: “You are being hired from the neck down. It is up to you to prove the rest.” That is one reason Martin focuses on appearance, both dressing appropriately and addressing people appropriately, which means respect. As Martin says: “Success is all about respect. First you have to respect yourself. Then you have to respect other people, both the people you work with, and the people you work for.” Martin hammers these issues home, along with teaching trade skills, too.

With a small student-to-teacher ratio, Glen is able to provide hands-on training with most common power tools; he provides a broad and in-depth look at contemporary building materials, along with an understanding of specific material applications; and of course his program includes best practices for basic carpentry techniques. This is an area where Glen’s program really shines.


At Green River, students don’t just study in classrooms or work in labs, they also work hands-on in real customers’ homes, either new construction or remodel projects. Students learn how to layout and erect walls, cut and frame roofs, form and place concrete, and how to install doors, trim, and cabinetry. They learn how to read prints, how to develop simple drawings and plans, and they have the opportunity to learn the latest in Green Building techniques.

When the students are not on the jobsite learning, they are in the workshop. The workshop is equipped with the latest power tools and materials for the students to develop and sharpen their carpentry skills and put classroom study into practice. 547059_425370067526521_661541558_n[1]-1

Glen is responsible for far more than just teaching. He is always on the lookout for community service jobs or projects for the students to work on while in the program. He believes it is part of a carpenter’s nature to help out their community when the opportunity presents itself. Students learn from start to finish, or as Glen puts it: “from dirt to doorknobs.” They learn on the job and get the feel for how a typical jobsite runs. Recent projects have included traveling with the students to Pass Christian, Mississippi to help rebuild after Katrina, building playgrounds for local parks and rec departments, and working with senior groups making homes adaptable for homeowners.

A former student-turned-teacher, Barent Hoffman, heads up the evening program, with Glen’s assistance. This program was designed specifically with the working professional in mind. The evening program’s aim is to provide additional basic and advanced carpentry training. Evening classes include basic and advanced training in stair design, roof framing, and cabinet construction. Advanced training is also demonstrated in interior finish and wood fabrication. All of the class lectures and demonstrations are available online, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Along with in-class instruction, a variety of DVDs are also available that demonstrate a specific skill the students are required to learn.

396130_408032055926989_545444403_n[1]-1 Created solely by the two professors, these videos teach skills such as building a cabinet, installing crown molding, hanging a door, and much more. After viewing the instruction and videos, students are required to meet in the shop and build specific mock-ups or full-size projects to demonstrate their proficiency.

Graduates of the program have the basic skills they need to start on any jobsite, and according to Glen, the students who complete his program have the opportunity to progress faster on the job. The foreman can then focus on teaching more job-specific advanced techniques. According to Dan Schultz, of Big Sky Construction: “Glen’s students leave his program job-ready. These graduates have the basic knowledge of how to perform on the job and have the character of a man I like to have on the jobsite.” Dan has hired several graduates of the Carpentry Tech program and found their training to be not only useful, but timesaving as well. “Glen’s graduates come to the job ready and able to work on day one. The time I spend with them can then be focused on specific requirements related to the job at hand.”

With the ability to complete the AAS course in less than one year, the Carpentry Program is a desirable option for many and it yields a high rate of success for finding employment. There are a variety of options for a graduate of the Carpentry Tech program.

Most often, graduates go on to work for a local contractor. Some students go on to attend the graduate program at University of Washington to get their Bachelor of Science in Construction Management. 100_0890-1

In 2013, Glen faced complete shut down of his program due to a downturn in the construction industry. But the Program Review Board convinced the College Administration that the Carpentry Technology Program is vital to the community and the industry. The program remains at GRCC. Around the nation, statistics are showing that the construction industry has made a tremendous turnaround. “Here in Washington, the Carpentry Program is healthy and, after completion, is sending students to work,” adds Glen.

A former carpenter, turned Industrial Arts teacher, Glen knows the value of doing what he loves, combined with a determination to succeed. In his free time, Glen takes on the job of recruiter. He frequents local high schools in an attempt to attract students looking to pursue a different route than work or college. “It is hard to make carpentry look sexy,” Glen says. “Carpenters work hard, they sweat, it’s a dirty job, but there’s a lot of value in what they do.”


I don’t know about you, but when I take a moment to look at the detail that goes into building a house, from the trigonometry it takes to cut and stack a roof, the skill it takes to install a stairway handrail system, and the determination it takes to succeed in an occupation that is already undervalued, I couldn’t think of anything more sexy.



20141113_150207-1Lisa has been surrounded by carpentry most of her life. Her father began his career as a General Contractor. His love of carpentry began with Custom Homebuilding and later expanded into Commercial Construction. He took pride in his work and valued a job well done. Lisa later married a contractor. He enjoys walking her through the rigor of planning, preparing, and implementing the details of his upcoming jobs. Currently, Lisa is the Office Manager for her and her husband’s business, Scott Wells Construction Company. Lisa worked for five years as an Escrow Officer at Land America Lawyers Title, where she handled many local builders new construction accounts. She has her Masters of Arts in Elementary Education and her Bachelors of Science in Health Promotion and Fitness Management from Southern Oregon University. When she is not helping her husband in the office, she is busy raising her two young kids.


22 Responses to “Dirt to Doorknobs: Carpentry Technology at Green River Community College”

  1. Scott

    Great article, Lisa. I was recently a student at the Seattle Central College Wood Technology Center. There is a whole team of great instructors there teaching carpentry, cabinet-making and boat-building in a brand new facility. I hope we see an article on this program as well.

    • Lisa

      Thank you, Scott. I am always excited to hear about successful trade programs, especially from graduates.

    • Ron

      I attended one such Community College (Orange Coast College)in Costa Mesa Calif. It has basically a 4 year program. Classes are specialize One class is on residential electrical wiring its a semester long class (basically 6 mos) of instruction 5 hours a night 4 days a week . Another is roof framing, steel metal roof framing , rough plumbing, finish plumbing etc , theory and practical. They give student the training for entry level construction jobs. I highly recommend these courses. In todays world its hard to find trained tradesman. These courses are as close to a actual apprenticeship as one can find in todays world.

  2. Jerry Myers

    Thank you again for another article that really hits home. Building shelter for the occupants of this planet is one of the most undervalued professions that we have today.

    I chose to go into construction after high school because I loved being outdoors, working for myself and seeing a tangible result of my labors at the end of the day. Forty years later, I feel just a strongly as I did when I graduated.

    I witnessed our school district “cut” auto shop, wood shop, print shop and every other manual arts program. Not every student is going to be an attorney, doctor, stock broker or artist and a whole generation was lost.

    I truly hope that one of these days when the administrator’s of our school district wake up and realize that it is easier to sue someone than build a room addition, that the manual arts programs will once again be funded.

  3. Larry Schweitzer

    I couldn’t agree more with the article. Many attend 4 year colleges to get degrees with no more value than underwater basket weaving. Around here the community colleges are less than ideal in their programs. They lack qualified teachers and the methods taught are a long way from state of the art. Cabinet making with a table saw and jointer, really. That was 1950. Most high school programs have been eliminated or work at a primitive level. There is only one of the 6 local high schools that has a valid program in wood. When that school’s instructor retires I suspect it will end. He has worked hard to help his students like, Mr. Martin. He has taken on the system administration to get some modern equipment, Cad training, attendance and entering the contests @ IWF, tours of modern wood and aircraft shops. My hat’s off to the few that make a difference. Too bad it is “FEW.” Sorry this was so long, but I get wound up over it. This site would not accept my web site!

    • Lisa

      It is sad to see such a valuable trade dismissed in our culture. I can sympathize with your frustration.

  4. David Foos

    I had the opportunity to live in Switzerland for a year and went gymnasium (school) there.
    Switzerland has a different approach to schooling and job placement.
    At 13 years old you take a test to see if you are going to get an education geared toward academics or a more manual labor career.
    This is a better way of getting people in the right job and it helps people get a better education for their given job.
    One of the nice things about it is there less of a pay/wage/salary gap between white collar and blue collar workers.
    There is an active mentorship process in the workplace. Your mentor could be a very close friend after a few years.

    • Lisa

      I recently had a conversation with a woman who was born and raised in Switzerland. She is very proud of her occupation as a nurse, as her mother and her grandmother before her were. Switzerland sounds like a very family and people centered society in many ways.

  5. Mark Allen

    Heaven forbid we test and track students. Oh wait, that’s what California has been moving toward for the last twenty years, getting everyone ready for a four year college.
    After 34 years of being a”shop teacher”, over a several year period of time, I closed the drafting lab, the wood shop and finally my metals lab. We went from a vocational department of 14+ instructors to 2. My classroom sat vacant for a year and then became a 1-2 period construction tech class. It was sad to see everything I had worked for disappear overnight. The value we installed as Voc. Ed. instructors is still alive and well in our past students working in the various industries. I just hope today’s students find the joy in creating and the pride of workmanship somewhere in their education.

    • Lisa

      I bet that was a sad time, Mark. Hopefully there are enough people like you around our nation that understand the value of the trade and can find a way to pass their knowledge onto our youth.

  6. Emanuel

    Nice article,Lisa. It’s always great to see these kinds of articles. I went to trade school in high school, then went on to North Bennet St School in Boston. I always wanted to be a carpenter and going to these schools helped me get there.

    Great work and Thanks again,

  7. marc martin

    I am remodeling contractor in tn. I wish we had schooling for the trades it has all been shut down in my area! It has been almost impossible to find qualified people!

    I was wondering if there was a way to get a copy of dvd the people take for some of their class requirements? I am always wanting to learn more and be able to pass on to those who also desire to know.

    thanks again for this article and any help you can give me.


  8. Richard Dunlap

    I love to see articles and news stories of this nature. I attended a state university right out of high school per the expectations of parents & teachers. Although I did well enough, my heart wasn’t in it and I left 12 credit-hours short of a degree. I’m now 20 years into a career as a carpenter and I wouldn’t change a thing about my present life. I consider myself very fortunate to have a job I am excited to return to every Monday morning!
    My wife and I have different stances on the need for our children to attend college. She is proud to be the only member of her family to have a bachelors degree. I on the other hand, am the only member of mine to not have a four-year degree. But we are both proud of our career choices AND the paths we have taken to get there. My hope is that we will together present our kids with the best options for their specific career goals.
    Thanks for putting the spotlight on a topic that deserves more attention.

    Rich Dunlap
    Centerburg, OH

    • Lisa

      Thank you, Rich. It sounds like you and your wife both made good decisions. I understand the value of an education, being a teacher, but I also believe that it is not the path for each person. With my own children, I believe that time will show what they are interested in and then it will be easier to help them make good decisions for their future. Good luck.

  9. Josh

    Thank you Lisa! Our company hopes to start an apprenticeship program this year for young people that want to learn the carpentry trade. This will be a great article to refer our target audience to!

    • Glen Martin

      Josh, that’s great news about your apprenticeship program. We’re in the process of doing the same thing with one of our local builders. Good luck and let me if you need any help and or advice. Thanks for taking the time to read about our program here at Green River.

    • Gary Katz

      Thank you, Josh. I appreciate the feedback. Good luck with starting the program.

  10. Andrew Pamenter

    Good to see this article – an impressive summary of the program and outcomes. We need to see more of these well-written presentations of the positive aspects of the trades.
    Our programs attract a wide range of students who for the most part have made a very conscious decision to pursue training in the trades often after other post-secondary schooling. They understand and appreciate the value of skilled labour and the challenges and opportunities presented by thoughtful, quality work.
    Unfortunately many also encounter negative reactions to their decision – too often young people are sent to the trades as a last chance option with no expectations or support. There is a perception of value that needs to be challenged. These are jobs that are difficult to outsource, demand creativity and problem-solving and ultimately contribute to our quality of life – who do we want building our shelters, bridges etc., managing the air, heat, water and electricity? Intelligent, conscientious and creative people I think.

  11. Jason Laws

    Your article was very interesting – thank you.
    I learned carpentry by joining the Amish in Maine (I left about 4 years ago). I had been an electronics tech for years and suddenly found myself with no job skills. I was offered a job working in the busy shed shop, cutting parts all day for trusses (a small boy showed me how to do it – very humbling!) Then, after I survived that, they assigned me to another builder in the shop for awhile. After that, I was given smaller sheds to build on my own and worked my way up to large sheds.
    Building these sheds over and over again really made what I was learning sink in, in a way that books or even a school can’t.
    Today, I still work as a carpenter in Northern Maine (Aroostook County) and I like what I do. It is nice to find people that enjoy their work and try to do it well. I think this craft has a bad name from people who don’t care and rip people off, etc. Too many people go to school to get the highest paying job instead of something they like to do, and then some fields, like carpentry, lack workers.
    We can’t all do the same jobs in life but the one that we pick to do, do it well and with all of your heart.
    Jason Laws
    Plain In Maine
    Amity, Maine

    • Lisa

      That is great, Jason, that you found a career you enjoy and good training to help you get there. Thank you for taking the time to read the article.


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