Carpenter Training Center growing to meet industry demand

Photo/Elwood Brehmer/AJOC

It’s quiet these days around the Southern Alaska Carpenter Training Center in South Anchorage.

To the center’s training coordinator Aaron Combs, that’s a good thing. It means his students are working.

Just a few weeks ago, in early June, the Southern Alaska Carpenter Training Center yard was full of lumber and about 40 students building frames for concrete walls, the consummation of their first year of training.

Combs said the initial six weeks of training attempts to touch on the basics of everything the apprentice-level students could encounter on a job site.

“We’re trying to stay at least up with, if not ahead of where the construction industry is going, so our projects are relevant and (the students) are developing skills they’re going to be using on the job,” Combs said.

He estimated more than 90 percent of the work demanded of center students is concrete, drywall and metal stud and framing construction on commercial-sized facilities.

After six months on the job, the students return to the center for more advanced training. A year later, there is another round of progressively advanced tutorials, with a fourth and final intense, 40-hour per week training course six months after that. All of the six-week classes are scheduled early or late in the year to keep students on jobsites during the peak of Alaska’s summer construction season.

The first-year students vary greatly in age and skill level. The 38-year-old Combs said he is waiting for the first class he teaches in which all of his students are younger than him. He took the first-year course in 1998.

“The first class is always the hardest one for us to teach because we have those people that have 15 years experience all the way down to never touched a hammer before, never seen a tape measure before; we have that wide of a range,” he said.

With four instructors for each class there is a 10-1 student-teacher ratio that allows for attentive instruction that first year.

While the business climate in Alaska has quickly shifted from exuberant to hesitant with the decline in the price of oil, the commercial construction market has remained fairly strong, at least for the time being.

Combs said all of his motivated and disciplined apprentices are in high demand — high enough demand that the training center is in the early stages of expanding.

Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters spokesman Ben Basom said the union expects to have to replace about 40 percent of its workforce over the next seven years to keep up with attrition and retirement.

“The Northwest Carpenters Union is in the process of expanding its training and apprenticeship program to include a new state-of-the-art training facility, which will train the present and future generations of carpenters in Alaska,” Basom wrote in an email.

Tentative plans are to hopefully grow the 45-foot by 60-foot shop in order to have more space to train scaffold builders, millwrights and also house pile driver training, Combs said.

According to Local 1281 Business Manager Scott Hansen, the ideal expansion would also include moving the Local into the facility as well if a parcel adjacent to the training center can be secured.

The first year starts with simple math, all the way down to addition and subtraction. By year four, the focus is on reading blueprints and consulting with architects how to integrate design and construction, Combs said.

“We don’t just train people to work, we train people to be the leaders in the industry, so we really want them to have all the skills to be that leader,” he said.

After the fourth year, most classes have shrunk by about half, according to Combs. He said he certainly doesn’t want that high of a dropout rate and that application and acceptance standards are being evaluated so the carpentry school can keep more of its students for four years.

The vast majority of the students that fall out of the program do so between the years one and two, he said, primarily because a lack of work ethic or ability to show up to a job on time is exposed.

“Reputation is everything in this industry,” Combs said. “The construction community in Anchorage is pretty small. Once you make a bad reputation for yourself everybody knows it.”

Those that can’t master the basics of being an available employee quickly find themselves out of work, he said.

The students are members of the Anchorage Carpenters Union Local 1281. As a result, the classes are free, covered by union dues, outside of about $300 for books and $580 worth of hand tools.

Hansen, also a graduate of the Southern Alaska Carpenter Training Center, said the basics taught early in the program is instruction that can be hard to find in on-the-job training.

“Our goal, our mission, is to supply our signatory contractors with the best trained, safe workforce possible, so without an apprenticeship, without a training center — that’s a very important aspect of what we do,” he said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/20/2016 - 4:08pm