Training Northwest Construction Workers

Story by Carl Molesworth | September 28, 2010

Addressing the growing concern about keeping up with the growing demand for construction workers in the Northwest involves more than simply recruiting warm bodies to fill the ranks. New people entering the field are useless to contractors until they gain the skills needed to do the work, and that's where apprenticeships come in.

For years, new workers in the construction industry have learned their skills under the watchful eye of a patient, experienced tradesperson. Perhaps more than any other industry, construction relies on apprenticeship programs to provide the training that workers need to be useful on a job site. These programs — union and open-shop alike — funnel new workers into virtually every skilled trade in the construction field.

Oregon has been a leader in the apprenticeship system. In 1931, Oregon became the second state in the nation to establish apprenticeship training at the state level. Federal programs were established six years after Oregon's, and portions of the federal system were modeled after Oregon's training programs.

Today, the State of Oregon Apprenticeship and Training Division administers the system. And though apprenticeship programs and providers vary from state to state, the Oregon Apprenticeship Guide provides a good overview of the apprenticeship world in general.

Despite being outnumbered nearly two-to-one by open-shop apprenticeship programs, Oregon's union apprenticeship programs register more apprentices, according to the Columbia Building Trades Council. Among the trades served by union programs are Carpenters, Operating Engineers, Teamsters, Laborers, and Cement Masons. Meanwhile, the Northwest College of Construction is an accredited, private, non-profit, open-enrollment institution providing a wide range of construction-related education and employment services.

Washington, too, has a wide variety of construction apprenticeship programs, which are approved by the Washington State Apprenticeship & Training Council. The Washington State Building & Construction Trades Council lists fully 42 union-operated apprenticeship programs on its website. In the Puget Sound region, the Construction Industry Training Council is a major open-shop provider.

In Alaska, it is estimated that industry needs 1,000 skilled construction workers each year just to replace the state's retiring workforce. Alaska Works Partnership was formed by Alaska's construction trade unions to build an Alaska construction workforce. Its jointly administered trade apprenticeship program partners own and operate 15 trade schools with millions of dollars in training equipment and provide qualified instructors to train recruits.

AWP pioneered youth construction academies in rural Alaska and now partners with the Anchorage School district in the Anchorage Construction Academy, a pre-apprenticeship program to provide adults with the opportunity to explore the construction field in preparation for starting a career.

Apprenticeship programs also are scrambling to keep up with the demand for construction workers in the mountain states. In Montana, the state Department of Labor and Industry's Apprenticeship and Training Program reports it has 990 registered apprentices working in 53 different apprentice-able occupations. Approximately 85 percent of all Montana apprentices are working in construction-related occupations.

At Boise State University, students in the Selland College of Applied Technology apprenticeship programs master a trade as full-time, paid employees under the direct supervision of a qualified journeyman. And North Idaho College's apprenticeship programs posted record enrollment for fall 2007–2008. Enrollments grew 5.1 percent from 433 in 2006–2007 to 455 this year. Enrollment in NIC's apprenticeship programs was up more than 20 percent last year as well. NIC's apprenticeship programs include 144 hours of related instruction and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training for apprentice electricians, plumbers and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians, and sheet metal workers.

Times may have changed, but the value of construction apprenticeship has not.