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Building trade skill classes taking off in Colorado Springs high schools, Pikes Peak Community College

September 9, 2017 Updated: September 11, 2017 at 4:21 pm
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Senior Cody Riley and his team cut a board with a radial arm saw Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, during a construction trade class at Mitchell High School. Pikes Peak Community College and the Home Builders Association have team up with area high schools to help fill the needs of the construction industry. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

An aging workforce, a shortage of skilled craftsmen and the need to help noncollege-bound youths find their destiny have created a first in the nation: a construction trades certificate program for high school students that is funded by those working in the industry.

"We want Colorado Springs to be the careers and construction hub," said Renee Zentz, CEO of the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs. "We want to give McDonald's a run for their money."

The HBA, which has 500 member businesses representing 12,000 employees, initiated the Careers in Construction program in 2015 to provide pre-apprenticeship training for ninth- through 12th-grade students.

The curriculum is adapted from the Home Builders Institute and certified by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Interest has grown from fewer than 30 students in one high school to 350 students in six schools this year, said April Hess, program coordinator.

Popularity and demand have led to an expansion. Pikes Peak Community College is continuing the pathway with a new associate in applied science degree in building and construction technology, along with two certificate programs that lead to the degree.

"For the last couple of years, in our architectural engineering and construction management programs, they'd say why aren't we building anything," said Michele Koster, advanced manufacturing and building trades coordinator for PPCC. "Between that and the high interest in the community about building trades and not having enough of a skilled workforce, it set us on fire to get a programming up and running for local kids and contractors."

Junior Israel Ramos carries wood back to his team's work table Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, during a construction trade class at Mitchell High School. Pikes Peak Community College and the Home Builders Association have team up with area high schools to help fill the needs of the construction industry. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

New programs at PPCC generally draw about 20 students, Koster said, but 125 students have registered for the construction offerings.

Areas of study include roofing, drywall, windows, building codes, carpentry and floor finishing. Internships at local companies are part of the program, and encompass contractors, estimators, schedulers and other positions.

Coursework builds on the high school curriculum and is applied to PPCC's accreditation system.

"It articulates beautifully," Koster said. "This is huge for students. We're hoping to take the training out of the equation for contractors needing help. Students should be able to jump right in and frame."

From powerhouse builders and developers to smaller players - including individual property owners - all are helping pay for the projects. And HBA officials hope the idea is appealing enough to draw more support.

When obtaining a building permit, HBA members can donate $25 per new home, $50 for commercial development and $6 for projects costing less than $25,000. About 80 percent of homebuilders participate, Hess said, and just 10 percent of commercial contractors. Hundreds of individuals and companies who buy permits for small projects such as a roof replacement or a new water heater also have contributed, she said.

Tracy Pope teaches his first-year students how to use a radial arm saw safely Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, during a construction trade class at Mitchell High School. Pikes Peak Community College and the Home Builders Association have team up with area high schools to help fill the needs of the construction industry. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Each of the six schools involved - Mitchell in Colorado Springs District 11; Atlas Prep High, Sierra High and Career Readiness Academy in Harrison District 2; Patriot High in Falcon District 49; and The MILL, a project of Widefield District 3 and Peyton District 23-JT, receives about $30,000 per academic year, for curriculum, materials and instruction. Some companies also donate materials and equipment and are providing internships.

"Our industry hasn't done a good job promoting the craftsman as a career," said Jim Johnson, chief executive officer of G.E. Johnson Construction Co., the largest general contractor in Colorado Springs, with annual sales nearing $700 million.

"There's tremendous opportunity in the field, and we're short everywhere," he said. "Once you're in, you can define your own path. If you start as a welder and decide you don't want to be a welder, you can be a form carpenter, an estimator, an equipment manager. You can have a very rewarding career and make a very good living."

Even entry-level jobs pay more than minimum wage, Johnson said.

Some students worked as interns over the summer and earned up to $15 an hour, Zentz said.

"It beats flipping burgers," Johnson said.

Associate degree holders can earn $40,000, and skilled tradesmen, such as plumbers or electricians, can draw salaries of $80,000.

Advanced craftspeople have the potential for six figures, Johnson said.

"It's hard work, in elements and a challenging environment, and it should command that pay," Johnson said. "That's what it takes."

G.E. Johnson also is helping fund PPCC's new construction degree as well as scholarships. The G.E. Johnson Construction Company Community Foundation awarded $250,000 to Pikes Peak Community College Foundation and the Foundation for Colorado Community Colleges to help build programs and provide scholarships at community colleges statewide. The money is being matched by the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, for an impact of $580,000.

"We felt like it was something our company could set aside for students to further their education and improve their skills," Johnson said. "People have been trying to solve this at a company level, but it's an industry problem. This is a united effort, and it was very easy for us to say count us in."

Other initiatives are planned. Builders and developers in Falcon School District 49 are building a $500,000 construction shop for students at Patriot High. And construction trades training for people exiting the military and needing a new career is in the works at Fort Carson.

Larry Paulsen, 16, is gravitating toward a career in construction after he earns a diploma from Mitchell High School. He likes putting his hands to work and seeing results.

When the fall semester started last month, he enrolled in the basic Careers in Construction course, which teaches how to measure, use power tools and keep a safe environment.

"I like how it shows us how to build and what to do and not to do and make sure you do it correctly," said Paulsen, a junior. "I'm hoping this class will help me figure out what I want to do."

The old shop room at Mitchell has been replaced with an environment that looks and feels like a job site.

"The first week of school they built a shed for our theater department," Mitchell assistant principal Amy Sanchez-Martinez said. "This is not a hobby, this is a career, and we want to prepare students for that."

Advanced classes focus on specific disciplines, including carpentry, electrical, HVAC and plumbing. Students work together in teams to build projects.

"They get to see how real-life experiences give the opportunity to have a job and make money," Mitchell High construction trades teacher Tracy Pope said.

Some students will be fired during the course.

"We make sure they understand they were fired for a reason, so when they do get to re-enter the workforce, they fix it," Pope said.

Just like a real job.

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