While many Hellgate High School students prepare themselves for the next four years of college, many others find themselves interested in the trades, thanks to the collaborative efforts of Missoula building industry firms and trade groups.
Hellgate graduate River Duce didn’t know what career he wanted to pursue after graduation until he took a welding class during the last semester of his senior year.
As part of the class, Duce made a metal sign using an AutoCAD computer design software. He also received safety certification through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and had the opportunity to learn five different welding techniques.
Because of his experience with that first class, he plans to attend Missoula College to study sustainable construction technology.
“I never really thought I was going to be doing this,” Duce said. “I never was a welding type or a woods person growing up, but once I started doing it, it was fun and it gets easier once you get better at it.”
The Missoula Building Industry Association awarded $4,500 in scholarships last month to students who showed interest and promise in pursuing a career in the trades. Duce received $1,500 and plans to use it toward his studies.
Duce is one of the first success stories that resulted from local companies coming together to provide Hellgate High trades classes with materials and resources to help improve students’ education in welding and building.
The goal: to encourage more local grads to pursue a career in the trades.
“We want to stress the value of those trades jobs and that there is good pay in those for a hard day’s work. It’s very rewarding,” said Janna Geier, executive officer of the Missoula Building Industry Association.
Launched during the 2017-2018 school year, Geier reached out to companies that are members of the association when her son, who was enrolled in a building trades class, said that materials were scarce.
In collaboration with partners including the association, Murdoch’s and Building Materials & Construction Solutions (BMC), the building trades class at Hellgate High received lumber and $15,000 worth of tools at a discounted price.
The Missoula Murdoch’s store started a program in 2016 called “Tools for Schools,” where the company collaborates with DeWalt tool company to provide discounted professional and basic equipment to schools like Hellgate.
Building trades class instructor Chip Rinehart said that skilled electricians, plumbers, engineers and others have visited the class to provide students with firsthand knowledge about what work is like out in the field.
Class projects range from basic wooden boxes and stepping stools to bookshelves, chicken coops and even a casket that was requested by a local resident.
Some projects are donated to the local MBIA Denim and Diamonds auction where proceeds benefit nonprofits like Mak-A-Dream, MOR4Kids and Habitat for Humanity.
Picnic tables and chicken coops are sold at Murdoch’s throughout the year, and the money circulates back into the trades classes at the school.
“I have a philosophy of ‘making sawdust is the way you learn.’ I think the best way our students can learn is by building stuff,” Rinehart said. “I can talk to them all day long. They have books on this stuff, but unless they’re out there doing it and learning it, they don’t get the true idea for it.”
According to Geier, there is a shortage of workers in the trades nationwide. Missoula contractors have trouble finding skilled workers for the many major construction projects underway locally, and many laborers have to be brought in from other states.
“Nationwide, at the beginning of 2017, there were over 800,000 vacancies and that number is growing,” Geier said. “The average age of an electrician in our country right now is 54 years old. It’s really scary.”
There are many benefits to practicing the trades, Geier said. Students won’t be buried in college debt and family businesses can be passed down to younger generations. Workers can move up in companies at a younger age and be paid livable wages.
However, because of the strong push for students to attend college, a stigma has developed around pursuing the trades. Even with all the projects that are going on now, the crash of the construction industry in 2008 is also to blame, Murdoch’s tool specialist Chris Cox said.
“Whenever you get these big upswings, especially after what we went through in 2008 with the crash of the construction industry, there was a lot of de-emphasis on getting people into the trades because it wasn’t seen as a career choice anymore,” he said. “Those things are cyclical, they come back around and right now, it’s very, very busy with construction and they’re scrambling to find good qualified people.”
Cox said that because of Montana’s background in agriculture and ranching, many parents are already teaching their children about the importance of the trades.
“We live in Montana,” Cox said. “This isn’t Seattle, Chicago or Boston. We’re more of a hands-on society around here as far as with ranching, farming, logging and mining. I think we’re dealing with a stronger work ethic with a lot of these kids because their parents come from that background.”
Geier said she has reached out to other high schools in hopes of assisting their trades classes as well, and knows that encouraging students through the classroom will be an effective way to show students the value of this kind of work.
If it weren’t for the community’s help, Rinehart said the class wouldn’t be as successful. If students decide on a different career path, basic trades knowledge will still serve them for their lifetime.
“Even if a student chooses not to go into a trade, our classes are still good,” he said. “Everyone needs the skill to cut a board and read a tape measure, even if you’re going to go on to be a doctor or a nurse. It’s still a skill that’s needed.”