Students look to trades

Training program teaches area youth practical job skills

Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Joe Eller, 17, and Alexis Ehlers, 18, both have bright prospects and clear plans for their future, and neither plan involves college.

The bright, outgoing pair intends to enter the trades: Eller to be a carpenter; Ehlers, an electrician or a plumber. Working together Tuesday, they built stringers used in constructing stairs during a hands-on session at the 11-day Construction Trades Academy in Juneau.

Under the supervision of two trainers with 70 years of combined construction experience, 19 young men and women from all over Southeast Alaska picked up practical experience and insights into the trade.

The program, sponsored by Alaska's Educational Resource Center, the Alaska Works Program and Alaska's Construction Trade Unions and Apprenticeships Programs, is in its third year and introduces young people to carpentry skills, construction math and safety training.

"I love working with my hands, doing math and being outside," said Ehlers, who left school after completing her GED at age 16.

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"All I've seen is the buildings going up and people working hard. I want a piece of that action," Eller, a GED candidate, said.

Just 25 percent of today's jobs require a bachelor's degree, estimated Juneau School Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

"There is a lot of work on the horizon and we need to prepare these young people now or they will miss the boat," said Mike Tucker, a trainer from Anchorage.

Tucker was alluding mostly to Alaska's oilfield, pipeline and related construction jobs.

"Mining is taking off too," Tucker said.

The trades program targets 17- to 23-year-olds. For pipefitters, carpenters or electricians, vocational education has not been a focus of schools in the last 20 years, Tucker said.

"A lot of these kids aren't going to college," he said. "A lot don't want to."

What prospects do Ehlers and Eller face in a construction work force? Tucker said if they enter an apprenticeship program, the teenagers would see an hourly wage of $18 to $23, plus benefits. After four years that hourly wage is $28 to $32.

"That's with zero money for tuition, and no student loan debt," Tucker said.

The trainer has no argument with higher education. Many with degrees go through apprenticeships looking for higher paying jobs.

Good jobs abound, and deciding not to go to college doesn't mean you have to flip burgers, Tucker said.

By Tucker's rough estimate, 1,000 skilled construction workers are needed each year to replace Alaska's retiring workforce. The average age in the trades is above 40. Further job growth comes from Alaska's steady development.

For their time Eller and Ehlers get several construction certificates, credits for Occupational Safety and Health Administration training and a chance to meet prospective employers and union representatives. To further the chances of entering the work force, the academy dressed out each of the aspiring tradesmen with all the hand tools required to start a job.

Both hope their new training will lead to open doors at apprenticeships.

"They want people with some experience," Ehlers said. "This could be a big stepping stone."

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