Construction cranes dot Portland's skyline as new apartment buildings, offices and hotels go up. And many of those who make it happen – the carpenters, electricians, brick masons and plumbers – earn above the average median income with full benefits.
But as older workers retire, younger workers are finding barriers to entry. Students are encouraged to think about college and not the trades. Women and people of color face multiple barriers in accessing and sustaining construction careers, including a lack of career ladders and resources for education and job training. Based on Metro’s Regional Construction Workforce Market Study of 23,000 construction workers in 2016, only four percent were women and 20 percent were minorities.
To help address these barriers, Metro and multiple public partners created its Construction Career Pathways Project, bringing stakeholders together to identify strategies for providing reliable career pathways for people of color and women in the construction trades. Union trade groups, community partners and schools are trying to change the negative perceptions about the trades and show students that construction is a viable and promising career path with good wages and benefits and skill development.
Outreach through a trades fair
Self Enhancement, Inc. hosted a trades fair in December, the first of what leaders there hope to be quarterly events. Students learned how to apply for various apprenticeship programs and got information on opportunities with the local chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors, Portland Community College, the City of Portland, Portland Youth Builders, the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48.
"The journey begins now, the opportunity is now and the need has never been greater," Joel Andersen, president of Andersen Construction, told the roughly 100 teens at the event.
Anthony Deloney, director of strategic initiatives at SEI, said they realized they weren't doing enough to show kids all of the options available to them after high school.
"Our ultimate goal is for our students to become positive contributing citizens," he said. "For kids that don't want to go to college or don't have the money to go to college but have the skills in these other areas, then construction is not just a good option – it's a great option."
Deloney said construction is an opportunity for the teens, many of whom come from communities of color, to become a part of the wave of economic growth that is happening in Portland.
"The kids that go here represent a group that's been underserved and not given the opportunities that they should have," said Paul Philpott with Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. "We're trying to make them aware of the opportunities that are out there for them. We need these young people to come in and take the place of people that are going to be retiring. We want them not just to be workers, but to be leaders."
Kennitha Wade, a journey electrician, said she attends outreach events as much as possible because she wished she had them when she was younger.
"I knew I wanted to work in construction, but I didn't know anybody who worked in construction and didn't know how to start," she said. "No one ever told me what my options were beside college. It was a lot of wasted time and I want to limit that wasted time by exposing kids to more options."
Advancing a multi-craft core curriculum
“We did our children the biggest disservice when we told them they couldn’t be successful unless they went to a traditional college,” said Willy Meyer, secretary-treasurer of the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council.
The council pitched its multi-craft core curriculum to 23 school districts and is working with about a dozen of them, including the Beaverton School District, to redesign their career technical education construction classes.
The Beaverton School District partnered with Worksystems, Inc. and companies in the industry, including Walsh Construction Co, Bremik Construction, Hoffman Construction Company, and Inline Commercial Construction to create an upcoming multi-core curriculum magnet program for construction at Merlo Station High School. Trade apprenticeship programs that make up the bulk of the team consists of Oregon Laborers, Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute, Columbia Building Trades Council, Sheet Metal Institute, NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Center, and Cement Masons Local 55.
Making Construction Tech at Merlo Station a magnet program will open up this opportunity to all students, High School Success Coordinator Janine Weir says, regardless of their home high school in Beaverton.
Thanks to a grant, the program kicks off this summer with a construction class at Merlo Station for seventh and eighth graders, one of the ways school officials hope to reach out to middle school students.
Beginning this fall, the course for high school students will only be available to those attending Merlo Station High. It’s the pilot class, but will be accessible district-wide in fall 2020. The lab space will likely begin construction early 2020, which will include elements of an industrial and commercial building site to stage a real-world experience within a variety of trades. This will give students the opportunity to build a mock-up of a commercial or industrial site and demolish it.
Avoiding college debt
From the upcoming magnet program, students will earn points to increase their rank when applying for apprenticeships. Applicants will be selected based on their rank from points earned from graduation, grades, taking a multi-craft core curriculum course, etc.
“At an apprenticeship program, you don’t get debt,” Meyer said. “You earn while you work, and you get a graduated pay scale. The more you learn, the more you get paid.”
Sean Parks, a construction trainer with Portland Youth Builders, said youth who enter the program right out of high school can be a journeyman within four to five years, making $80,000 to $90,000 a year – while their friends graduate from college with mountains of debt.
"We beat this idea into our youths' head that if you don't go to college, you're going to be worthless," Parks said. "But I want young people to know that there's lots of options. Those guys who are getting dirty in the trenches building these buildings, they're making between $30 and $40 an hour and getting really good benefits."
Peter Brink, Aloha High’s woodworking instructor, said he pushes a lot of students who don’t want to go to college toward construction.
“If they’ve got any sort of skills – how to use tools or show up to class on time, I tell them, ‘You can go out and make a lot of money,’” Brink added. “I’ve got some seniors who worked this last summer and made $17-20 an hour. For a high school kid, that’s really good money.”
Manny Maymay, a senior at Roosevelt High School, plans to get a job after high school. Construction sparked his interest since taking a carpentry class as a sophomore.
“I keep telling my parent about it every day after school,” he said. “My mom’s okay with that. At the same time, she’s kind of terrified if I work in construction because she thinks I’m going to hurt myself. I keep telling her that I’ll be fine.”
Poised to partner
Partnering with the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute, Portland Public Schools is implementing the institute’s curriculum district-wide, consisting of hands-on projects in the classroom and working with communities to take part in site visits and getting guest speakers.
The school district also partnered with the Association of General Contractors to connect them with businesses in the construction field in effort to give students opportunities to experience the trades. Benson Polytechnic High School recently established a partnership with Walsh Construction while Roosevelt High School will work with Andersen Construction to create sticky relationships that allows students hands-on opportunities to experience the trades.
Photos provided by Portland Public Schools.
“The benefit for the partner is workforce development,” said Jay Keuter, Portland Public Schools' career technical education business partnership manager. “The benefit for the program is it eases the partnership. The idea that you can pick up a single point of contact really helps with coordination of a variety of different experiences. The teacher may not know everything there is to know about a particular track so that partner can push in expertise into that classroom and be a guest presenter or demonstrator. It is people, it is career learning, maybe ends up translating to financial benefit and equipment donations. There’s just a variety of different facets we’re looking at.”
Roosevelt High School’s construction class teaches framing, concrete, electrical and roofing, but its notable experience is a trip to a Habitat for Humanity site.
“We get to talk about the housing industry, not just building but the laws, the market,” said James Duckworth, the construction teacher. “That’s a neat tangible way for students to see that it’s not just about building something with your hands. You’re making places for people to stay.”
In 2017, the school district launched its Partner Connect Platform, an internal tool, to match business partners with students. Of 600 partners registered across 16 career clusters, approximately 141 of them are from the architecture and construction field.
“We may have 10 people from Walsh Construction create a profile but what we’re gathering from them is what they’re interested in contributing (job shadow, internship, guest speaking, etc.),” explained Keuter. “More importantly, what we’re getting out of this is their demographic – race, ethnicity, gender – and using that information then to be able to send information to teachers at the high school so they can better match the demographic of their students with potential partners who come from similar backgrounds.”
Putting a strong lens on equity and access
Getting more females in a male-dominated field remains a hurdle, even in the classroom.
According to a study from the University of Texas about attracting more women into male-dominated fields, researchers recommended explaining opportunities to girls in the form of problem solving or helping society.
“For girls, the outcome is the biggest draw and one of the best ways to recruit,” said Aurora Terry, senior director of college and readiness for Portland Public Schools. “So how do those jobs help benefit people and how would these jobs allow them to solve problems?”
Aloha High School sophomore Ella Olsen is one of the few girls at the school considering a career in construction and architecture. “I got into it because of Woodworking,” she said. “I liked the hands-on projects and building stuff.”
Roosevelt High School junior Sarah Dowell is unsure of what she wants to do after high school, but construction is one thing she’s considering despite it being a male-dominated career.
“I’m not going to lie, I really wish there were more girls in this class,” Dowell said. “It’s really good for women to take the class so they can build your own thing and understand how things are built.”
James Duckworth, construction instructor at Roosevelt, said his classes generally consist of 25 to 50 percent female with a female-dominated carpentry class and male-dominated construction course. Duckworth said he is trying to get more female representation in the partnerships to encourage more girls to explore this option as a career.
“When we were first going to Habitat for Humanity, I made sure we were going to a site where there’s a female site supervisor,” he said. “If an apprenticeship panel goes through with Andersen Construction, I’m going to push to get at least one female representative.”
A nationwide architecture, construction and engineering program called ACE is available to students across the tri-county area, and the key to that is mentoring.
“The students are on teams with one student and two mentors,” Terry said. “There are a lot of girls in that. Obviously they’re thinking architecture and engineering, but basically what they’re getting is the exposure to how it all fits together.”