Monday, February 9, 2009

Construction trades are still a good bet, according to experts

The construction trades are still a good career bet for young people, experts say, despite the current downturn.

By Lynda V. Mapes

Seattle Times staff reporter

Construction Challenge judges Jeremy Abbott, left, Lily Iftner and Flo Hare grade a team's effort in the Manufacturing Design round.

Master Builders:
Puget Sound Skills Center:

Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center:

Construction Center of Excellence:

Seattle Central Community College:

Edmonds Community College:

Wage and employment information:

David Barber is only 18 but he knows himself well:

"I've tried working in stores, and the people make me mad. But give me a hammer or tell me to cut something and I'm happy. I'm the hands-on type."

He was right at home Saturday at a Construction Challenge event in Bellevue, where teams of students from middle and high schools put their problem-solving skills to the test.

They invented tools and structures, solved design puzzles and along the way learned about the building and construction industry as — despite its currently stalled state — a source of good-paying careers.

With only raw materials, a goal and their imaginations, the 61 students tackled hands-on challenges. In timed trials, they built inventions and structures from scratch, including even a cardboard-and-duct-tape Alaskan Way Viaduct — complete with vehicles.

Nationwide, more than 230 student teams competed in 15 regional qualifying rallies, including the one in Bellevue. The winners will advance to a final competition in Tennessee in May, to compete for cash prizes and scholarships.

Right now, layoffs in the construction trades go well beyond seasonal swings, state statistics show. In December 2007, 64 welders and cutters in King County were laid off, while this past December, 343 lost their jobs.

It was the same story with carpenters: 422 were laid off in December 2007, and 1,171 were collecting unemployment in December 2008.

But some experts are predicting that while construction is drying up now, by the time these kids are ready for a career, there will be jobs for them.

Between the federal stimulus package and the Sound Transit light-rail construction project approved by voters last fall, "There is business on the books," said Norward Brooks, executive dean of the Seattle Vocational Institute, a public, state-supported, work-force training school.

Plus, he said, "The construction industry has a lot of people who are old, and they are looking for replacements."

Ken Pierson, construction-technology instructor for the Puget Sound Skills Center in Burien, sees eight retirees for every new recruit to the construction trades. "There are great career possibilities, and women have an even better shot," he said. "We need every single graduate out there."

Ivars Graudins, manager of labor-market information for the state Department of Employment Security, sees a construction industry that is down but not out — and with this big advantage: "It pays a living wage without necessarily needing a four-year degree. "

Even apprentices in the building trades make $17 to $18 an hour on average, and journeymen with five years' experience can earn $30 an hour on average, Brooks said.

Construction has long been underrated as a career, some said. "These are well-paying jobs," said Cathy Feole, executive director of the Master Builders Career Connection.

"People think it's just hammer and nail and broom pusher, but there are so many jobs. And with more and more technology, there are more jobs for women."

Saturday's career-development program was sponsored by the nonprofit Association of Equipment Manufacturers and Destination ImagiNation.

Some students at the competition, at the Master Builders Association headquarters, already had their career path planned out.

"I wanted to be a marine biologist at first," said Michael Noelke, 11, of Fall City. "Then I was tending more into my baseball career. I think that's where I still am."

But then, he might move dirt, like his uncle. "I think I'd be more of a digger," Noelke said, "if I get to use one of those big trucks."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or


Subject: *
Your Name: *
E-mail Address: *
Message: *

* Required