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Trading Up and Building Talent

Colorado’s community colleges and construction industry leaders are teaming to train a skilled workforce

Colorado’s community colleges and construction industry leaders are teaming to train a skilled workforce

Tried to schedule a home repair or air conditioning check-up lately? If so, your project was probably added to a long list of delayed appointments. Licensed, well-trained tradesmen and women are scarce these days. The construction industry was hit hard by the Great Recession. But instead of returning to work when the economy improved, thousands of carpenters, plumbers, roof framers, electricians and construction workers opted to retire. Others chose new careers. 

So how do we replace these important skilled workers – and encourage more Gen Xers and Millennials to tool up? 

There are certainly plenty of skilled trade jobs available. The Associated General Contractors of America reports that residential and non-residential construction activity is at a 10-year high. But 80 percent of 1,400 firms surveyed by AGC have hit road blocks when they tried to fill positions. Likewise, the National Association of Homebuilders estimates almost 200,000 construction jobs went unfilled in the U.S. last year – up 81% compared to 2014.  

The issue has made headlines – from Fortune and Forbes to the New York Times and The Denver Post. Here in El Paso County, company owners, large and small, are concerned.  

First Rate Electrical Services owner Craig Prue and his busy 2-man team wire new homes for builders in northeast El Paso County. “The other day it happened again,” Prue recalls. “We got ready to start work and found out the homebuilder hadn’t been able to line up a framing crew so we had to come back later.” A 35-year licensed electrician, he admits a lack of skilled talent makes it hard to keep up with demand. “We’re booked out so far, I’ve had to turn business away,” he says.  

The good news: concerned industry and community groups are taking action. The Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, for example, partners with the National Association of Home Builders’ Home Builders Institute (HBI) to offer skilled trades training for jobs and apprenticeships.

Non-residential building firms like G.E. Johnson Construction Co. are also working on solutions. The company offers on-the-job training and incentives for employees who earn construction-related college degrees. GEJ owner and Chairman Jim Johnson says hiring is not as difficult along the Front Range. It’s harder, however, to find qualified workers in Bozeman where the company is building the new Yellowstone Club -- or for mountain community resort or hospitality projects. “Construction trades can be high-paying,” he says, adding that a top carpentry foreman can make six figures. “Our industry needs help – and developing a skilled trades Associate’s degree is vital.” 

In that spirit, the G.E. Johnson Construction Community Foundation recently awarded $250,000 in funding to Pikes Peak Community College Foundation and the Foundation for Colorado Community Colleges. Johnson also issued an additional $100,000 matching challenge to PPCC and the Colorado Springs HBA. Money raised will support scholarships for and development of an Associate of Applied Science degree in Building and Construction, plus professional certification courses. The program’s goal: to generate a pipeline of skilled workers for local companies. 

Pikes Peak Community College Associate Dean Sharon Hogg and PPCC Advanced Manufacturing Coordinator Michele Koster are preparing to launch initial degree and certificate courses this fall. Classes include Floor & Wall Construction, Roof Framing, Interior Finishes and Trim – and will touch on plumbing, electrical and insulation. “We also have 200 level classes later in the degree – subjects like estimating, scheduling, & building codes,” Koster says. 

PPCC has also reached out to local school districts and is currently partnering with Atlas Preparatory School to re-introduce classes similar to Vocational/Technical programs of 30 or 40 years ago. Students can earn eventual college credit for their work. Director of Career and Technical Education Tim Enrico says the joint program has already attracted 140 students. “Not everyone is about paper and pencil. For some, learning a trade is a path to feeling successful,” he explains. “Making a table or building a wall from scratch can be satisfying and empowering.” 

Craig Prue agrees. “Anyone in a licensed trade can control their own future – and they’ll never have to worry about finding work.”