Trades provide Spokane family hope, fill needed labor shortage

January 15, 2017 GMT

The recent turn of events left Shandrea Martin struggling for words.

“This is like, honestly, this is something we would never …”

She starts again. “We kind of figured we’d made the mistakes we’d made in our life and we would have to live a very humble, scraping-by life. It gave us a serious sense of hope.”

David Cook, Martin’s partner, graduated from Spokane Community Colleges’ pre-apprenticeship program in December. On Jan. 2, he packed his bags and headed to Othello, Washington, to work construction on a hospital project.

For Cook and Martin, former drug addicts and high school dropouts, the change couldn’t be starker. In Othello, Cook is making about $20 an hour. After four years, when he becomes a journeyman carpenter, he could make upward of $40, with benefits.

“I’m excited to be part of this at this time because I know there is this huge vacuum,” Cook said. “I’m in the right spot at the right time, and I’m the right guy.”

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Skilled labor is at a premium in Spokane and the region, said Cheryl Stewart, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Washington. And the shortage only will get worse as an older generation retires.

“In the summer months you’re definitively seeing worker shortages,” Stewart said. “You’re going to see delays in projects. You are going to see fewer bids on projects.”

The list of trades that need workers is long: masons, truck drivers, iron workers, laborers, carpenters, operators.

By 2019, Washington will need 15,000 carpenters, 28,000 laborers and about 9,000 operators, Stewart said. Statewide, 70 percent of companies anticipate struggling to fill craft positions, according to a 2016 Associated General Contractors of America survey.

A $16.1 billion state transportation package passed in 2015 and a growing economy will only increase demand for skilled workers, Stewart said.

Evie Lawry, an apprenticeship consultant for the state Department of Labor and Industries, said the labor shortage in Washington is profound.

“Just recently, in the last 10 years, it’s hit us really hard,” Lawry said.

The scarcity of skilled workers can be blamed in part on a retiring generation, but Stewart points to a more fundamental cause.

“I think our biggest issue right now is perception – perception of the construction industry,” she said.

Years of pushing students to prepare for college, rather than go into workforce training, has cost the skilled labor pool, Stewart said. Most high school students don’t dream of being a carpenter, she said.

Stewart recalled a high school counselor once telling her, “Construction is a career you end up in, not one you begin in.”

“It’s just this idea that everyone has to go to college and that’s a better way of life,” she said. “I don’t know that that’s true, honestly.”

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Erin Meuer, the instructor of the pre-apprenticeship program at SCC, said an apprenticeship is a good way to go because it’s meaningful work and pays well. People want to contribute, and seeing a building or a project that you worked on gives a sense of accomplishment, Meuer said.

Cook, her former student, is a perfect example. When he started the college program, Meuer said Cook, by his own admission, had only taken from society, never given back. But once he was in the program, he got serious and made huge changes.

“Literally in my career I’ve never seen somebody’s test scores change that much,” Meuer said.

And for someone who is driven and motivated, there is no limit to how much they can achieve in the trades, Stewart said.

“One of my past presidents is a journeyman mason,” she said. “He doesn’t have a college degree, but he owns a very successful company now.”

Apprenticeships aren’t just for carpenters and plumbers, said Matthew Erlich, a spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industries. Erlich said there is a focus on expanding apprenticeship programs into technology industries.

In 2015, the state received a $5 million federal grant to do just that. Last year, the state got a $2.7 million grant aimed at getting 600 new apprentices into health care, education and advanced manufacturing.

Across Washington there are 150 registered apprenticeship programs with more than 15,000 active apprentices.

“It is moving into the 21st century,” Erlich said. “Apprenticeship has been around for centuries, where you learn from a tradesperson. Now we’re moving into high tech.”

Todd Turner, the training director for Inland Empire Electrical Training Trust, sees apprentice programs as the perfect way to start a career. He wonders how many four-year university graduates make $30 an hour right out of school.

“That’s why a lot of people should be looking toward apprenticeships to make a living,” Turner said.

Martin, Cook’s partner, is considering enrolling in an apprenticeship program as well. And as Cook packed his bags for Othello, his 3-year-old son Cash grabs his father’s hardhat and puts it on.

“He’s always grabbing dad’s hardhat,” Martin said. “He tells people, ‘My dad is a struction worker.’ ”