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.
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.|
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.
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.|
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.
Lisa 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.