Finding A Solution

Skilled Trades Alliance offers a unique partnership with Des Moines Schools.

Numerous times over the past few years, we have reported on the labor situation in the construction trades. From the shortage of skilled workers to the lack of educational opportunities available, the prospects for a qualified labor pool have appeared bleak.

Many professionals were quick to lament the situation, but few had any solutions.

In central Iowa a glimmer of hope is on the horizon in the form of the newly established Skilled Trades Alliance. Formally established this past June, the Skilled Trades Alliance is a pre-apprenticeship program created with the specific goal of getting young people excited about the construction trades.

Founding member Gary Scrutchfield of Lumbermans Drywall and Roofing Supply explains, “For too long we have failed to really show kids what opportunities are available to them in the construction field and what a good living they can make. This program really hopes to get kids excited about the industry and to provide them an opportunity to get hands-on experience.”

To help implement those goals, the Alliance has partnered with Des Moines Public Schools to develop a curriculum and raise money to fund the program. “For the first time, the industrial construction community and the Des Moines schools have formed a partnership to really educate kids and to fill the growing need for skilled professionals,” Scrutchfield says. “It’s going to be the first program like it in Iowa. Central Campus will be the only school in the state with a state-approved pre-apprenticeship program for the construction trades.”

Although the school district is still finalizing specifics of the program, officials are excited about the opportunity and the partnership with professionals in the trade.

“The executive committee is very excited and grateful for the business community’s support of this,” says Aiddy Phomvisay, Director at Central Campus. “We’re actively working with district and business leaders to make this a first-class program with a clearly defined curriculum that aligns with business needs and pre-apprentice program goals.”

Phomvisay says the commitment from the business community to provide experiential learning for students will enable the district to offer an education that meets the gold standard of pre-apprenticeship programs.

Scrutchfield says there are plans to create a curriculum that introduces students to all aspects of the construction business—from concrete, HVAC, and electrical to framing, drywall, and finish carpentry—as well as tweaking other areas of the curriculum to better prepare students for on-the-job situations.

“Students will get hands-on training and coursework both,” he explains. “We’re hoping to adapt some of the core classes, like math, to help the kids understand how they’ll actually use it on the job to see it not as geometry or trigonometry but as solving a roofing or plumbing calculation. When they graduate, they’ll have the experience to go straight into a professional apprenticeship program and complete their licensing in less time with zero debt.”

The Skilled Trades Alliance is working closely with the district to develop the program. Members already eager to participate include companies covering every area of residential and commercial construction as well as building maintenance.

The industry is so eager to see the program implemented, it is partnering with the district to fund much of the cost. According to Scrutchfield, “We held a very successful fund-raiser and information event in August where both school and private individuals came to learn about the concept and to get on board.”

In the nearly two months since that event, the Skilled Trades Alliance has raised almost half the funds needed by the October 31 deadline to get the program rolling. “Right now we have a three-year commitment,” Scrutchfield says. “During that period, we hope to grow the program enough to extend it long-term. In 10 years we hope to have instructors on campus in every one of the construction trades.”

Specifics are still being determined. The district plans to have a more formal announcement ready in the next several months. The program is slated to offer its first classes during fall 2017 with one construction trades instructor to oversee the program and individual professionals and companies providing the hands-on instruction.

Participating trades have also been formulating a financial path to contract with students for debt-free apprenticeships and education. “The idea is that a student would contract with an employer. In exchange for paid education and apprenticeship experience, the student would agree to work for the employer for a certain number of years,” Scrutchfield says.

Modeled after programs like ROTC, the agreement benefits both sides. Students receive a debt-free education and experience; employers receive the skills of a well-trained professional.

Skilled workers may be few and far between right now, but like all the best professionals, the Skilled Trades Alliance is taking the initiative to do something about the problem, not just talk about it anymore.

Before long, that pool of talented professionals may be overflowing in the Des Moines area. And wouldn’t that be a nice problem to have?