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As Grand Forks faces construction worker shortage, strong trade education program offers hope

Grand Forks Central student Zane Miller (left) and Joseph Novak of Red River trim a piece of siding for a house that their class, Building Trades Carpentry Program, is finishing up in south Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Instructor Ben Moen (left) and students (from left) Dominic Otto, Zane Miller and Joseph Novak give a tour of the home the Building Trades Carpentry Program built this school year. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Builders across North Dakota are facing a problem: there's plenty of potential work, but few workers.

According to an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America, from April 2017 to April 2018, North Dakota lost the highest total and percentage of construction jobs—4,900 jobs or 17 percent—out of all 50 states.

Brian Turmail, executive director of public affairs for AGC, said the organization attributes this to multiple factors. There was less construction as the state's economy took a dip because of low oil prices. However, in talking to North Dakota builders, the AGC found that one other major problem is a lack of skilled workers. This issue is especially true in the Grand Forks area, Turmail said.

"Across the state, our members, that's one of their biggest concerns is that every year they run into labor shortages," Kim Schneider, chief executive officer of the North Dakota Association of Builders, said.

Grand Forks builder Nate Applegren, co-owner of Applegren Construction, said that while he has not personally been negatively affected by the worker shortage, he's aware that it is a problem in the area. He says he does feel fewer young workers are coming to him with fewer skills.

"It's not easy to find somebody that is trained in the trade, but we just try to get who we can and then train them on the job," Applegren said.

Turmail and Schneider both said a major concern for their respective organizations was that it appears relatively few young adults are choosing to go to two-year technical institutions.

"What we run into a lot is parents want to see their children attend four-year colleges instead of two-year colleges,," Schneider said.

In the past, Applegren aimed to hire graduates of Northland Community and Technical College.

"We try to get some guys from the 'tech,' you know, because the 'tech' has a construction program every year, but we're seeing fewer and fewer going there too," Applegren said. "A guy tries to pick up those guys if you can because they have an interest and a knowledge in construction so they're willing to learn."

Holding steady

Across their five construction specializations, Northland's enrollment and graduation numbers have remained steady over the past five years, according to the East Grand Forks location's campus dean, Brian Huschle. Huschle believes there could be a few reasons local builders are feeling the squeeze.

"We know that the unemployment rate in this area is very low and all of these fields are high demand, and so my initial thought is that the reason why they're experiencing it like that is that there's more opportunity for these students and so the students are being spread out," Huschle said.

There also has been an increase in out-of-state recruitment, Huschle notes. North Dakota has had a hard time retaining workers when opportunity exists elsewhere. According to Turmail, this was another factor in the state's loss of construction jobs.

"One of the things that (North Dakota builders) told us was, 'Hey, you know, when the economy gets soft, people tend to leave the North Dakota markets and not necessarily come back,' " Turmail said.

Northland might continue to produce a steady stream of skilled workers, but Schneider said that after surveying middle and high schools across the state, the North Dakota Association of Builders is concerned about shrinking trade programs at the middle and high school level.

One school district that continues to invest in teaching students construction skills is Grand Forks.

"When I took over, I was fortunate enough to go tour a lot of the state, and I would say (former trades instructor) Gary Purpur had the best program in the state at that time, with ease," Ben Moen, the instructor for the Grand Forks School District's building trades carpentry program, said. "I don't even think it's up for debate, and I would sure like to the think that we're still there."

Hands-on experience

Since 1998, juniors and seniors from Central and Red River high schools have been constructing a complete house over the course of the school year to get hands-on experience in the field. For the past 16 years, students have even been able to work onsite rather than building the structure on school grounds, meaning they get instruction in plumbing and electrical hookups and other important skills.

"It's really good for the district if you look at the risk they make financially. It's a big risk to fork out this amount of money on a house for kids," Moen said. "I tell them that's something a lot of other communities don't do."

The profit made from selling the houses is rolled back into the program.

The district has expanded its construction trades class offerings because of a push from representatives of the local industry, said Eric Ripley, the district's director of career and technical education.

There is no way to know if the majority of the students who go through the district's trades program will stay in the region, but Ripley said he has observed one promising phenomenon because of the classes' onsite work.

"One of the things that we've noticed a lot is that we're building in a new residential construction area and so there are private contractors obviously building in the same area, and a lot of times they'll come down and they'll talk with our students about summer employment opportunities—what are you doing after high school?—things of that nature," Ripley said. "So, we're seeing a lot of our students actually getting employed by other contractors that are working in the same general area."