Becka Gurevich of Eau Claire and Brett Stuckert of Bloomer have what many would consider contrasting career histories.
Gurevich, 35, works in massage and cosmetology, while Stuckert, 24, graduated with a degree in biology and wildlife from UW-Stevens Point. After graduating, Stuckert spent two years searching for the right professional fit but came up unsatisfied.
Stuckert’s frustration with his first-chosen profession and Gurevich’s love for home-improvement projects eventually led the two of them to the same place: standing atop freshly churned dirt on Thursday with 15 other Chippewa Valley Technical College students. Over the next academic year, that half-acre lot at Highclere Estates on the city’s north side will become a four-bedroom home as the residential construction students learn the basics of homebuilding.
“There just weren’t any jobs,” Stuckert said of his experience with his four-year degree. “I knew there were a lot of job openings in (the construction) field, so I jumped right in.”
Stuckert is right; there are a lot of job openings in the construction field, as there are in skilled trade industries across the state. It’s part of the reason the Chippewa Valley Home Builders Association decided to partner with the technical college by donating $1,000 for class supplies and featuring the student-built home in its 2019 Parade of Homes, according to a news release from the association.
Students and members of CVTC and the association broke ground on the project on Thursday. The completed home will be featured in the parade June 8 through 15 next summer.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for Wisconsin skilled trade workers in construction has increased 19 percent over the last three years. That’s a statistic Adam Ashley of Ashley Construction notices every day on the job, he said.
“There’s work out there that we just can’t take,” said Ashley, who serves as the association’s chairman of workforce development. “If we wanted to expand or add a crew so we could build more homes, we couldn’t do it. If we took the work we wouldn’t be able to get it done on schedule.”
The shortage extends to all areas of the homebuilding industry, he said — concrete, landscaping and more.
Ashley said he personally started experiencing a worker shortage two or three years ago, at which point he started trying to counteract the trend by working with high schools and students in college. Programs like CVTC’s produce great students who have an edge over other applicants, he said, but that program alone is not a “magic cure” to the shortage problem, which he said is worse this year.
As an example, Ashley noted a hiring advertisement he promoted on social media that reached 40,000 people. Of those who saw the ad, only three applied.
“All of the students who graduate from this program will be placed before they graduate if they want to be,” Ashley said, “and that’s just a small fraction of what people need out there.”
Brian Barth, program director and instructor for CVTC’s residential construction program, said he guesses the root of the current skilled labor shortage began around 2005. There were a lot of high school instructors who taught building trade classes around that time, he said, whose shops were closed permanently after they retired as part of efforts to save costs.
Combine that lack of early exposure to trade work with a currently healthy economy and jobs left unfilled after the market collapse around 2008, and the skilled workforce shortage was born, Barth hypothesized.
Nowadays, working a skilled trade like home construction can bring incentives such as benefits packages and a $50,000 salary — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for a carpenter in Wisconsin is currently $49,530.
It’s Barth’s job to make sure his students are prepared to enter that field.
“This is the site where the students are going to learn the fundamentals of building,” he said during the groundbreaking event. “ ... and not only make them good construction people, but great human beings. Teaching them responsibility, initiative and pride.”
By the end of the program in May, Barth said, his students will have learned how to move through the framing and finishing of a house and all the steps in between. The one they’re set to build will be 1,600 square feet with a walk-out basement and a three-car garage.
Gurevich said the class will help her learn which tools to select for a job and how to use them.
“I do a lot of remodeling projects at my house, and I just thought I’d do things the right way and learn,” she said. “I just love to do it.”
Stuckert said he’s looking forward to having a hands-on learning experience.
“I just want to learn the fundamentals of building and get my hands dirty while doing it,” Stuckert said, “and eventually one day run my own business.”
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