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Building boot camp – Program prepares Students for Jobs in Construction Industry

June 2006

“Just shut up and work,” says contractor Tom Brighthaupt.  His motto may seem a bit crass, but he doesn't have time to mess around.  He only has 10 days to teach a dozen people the entry-level basics of construction.  Any mistakes mean at least five pushups.

Brighthaupt is serving as the drill sergeant-style instructor at Nevada County's first 10-day Construction Boot Camp held at the Sierra College campus.  The boot camp is a joint agency response to a cry for help from a booming construction industry with a dwindling pool of skilled workers to draw from.

“The construction industry is short handed and they need people with skills, “said Sierra College's Sandra Scott, director of the school's Workforce Development and Continuing Education division.

The boot camp is a collaborative effort between Sierra College, Nevada County Contractors Association, Nevada County Department of Social Services CalWORKS Employment Services, the 49er Regional Occupational Program and Golden Sierra Employment Training.  Shasta Builders Exchange from Redding provides the 80-hour crash course.

The course teaches entry-level skills such as hands-on instruction with tools, basic construction math and blueprint reading.  By graduation day, students will have built a small shed with siding, a hanging door, roofing and dry wall.  The students who pass the course will receive certifications in CPR/first aid, OSHA safety overview, forklift safety and flagger training.  A job fair will be held on the last day, where local employers can meet and possibly hire graduates.

“It's a sampling of all the skills you have to have to be successful in construction,” said Scott.  This is the first trial fast track trade course offered by Sierra College.  If it is successful and meets the needs of employers, the college hopes to offer more construction-based workshops along with series in other fields.  “We really want to do this on a regular basis and hopefully more than once a year,” said Scott.

Barbara Bashall, executive director of the Nevada County Contractor's Association (NCAA) says for years local contractors have been complaining about a lack of trained journeymen.  High schools tend to promote college and the armed services over construction and a declining number of graduating seniors looks toward the industry as a job opportunity to make a career out of.

“In everyone's eyes that is a last resort, and that's the wrong image,” said Bashall, who with NCAA has been trying to change that.  She says a lack of work ethic among youth entering the field is one of the biggest complaints she hears from contractors.  She travels to Redding this week to meet with representatives from Shasta Builders Exchange to get ideas for future training programs in our area.

While construction has steadily climbed to one of the leading industries in the county, the work force is edging toward retirement.  The number of young people entering the field has dropped in the last six years, and the average age of construction workers is 45.  Bashall says this limits what contractors can do and the public has a difficult time finding a contractor because the good ones are booked up.

Anna Carney, 24, a single mother with a 2-year-old son, hopes the boot camp will open some doors for her.  Carney says she prefers outdoor physical labor and worked for four years for the California Conservation Corps building trails; she also has some experience working a jackhammer and maintaining highways with Cal-Trans.  “I worked three years in retail and I'll tell you, it killed me, working inside,” Carney said as her fingers looped electrical cord onto a daisy chain.  She looks forward to the day when she will get paid to drive big dump trucks and dozers.

Kimberly Sells, 29, another single mom who is living with her parents, sees a career in the construction industry as one with longevity that she can build a self-sufficient lifestyle around.  She hopes to be a flagger with entry-level pay of $28 to $32 per hour.  She didn't know how to read a tape measure before she enrolled in boot camp, she said as she took a break from measuring and hand sawing.  “It's just an avenue to so many careers," Sells said.  “I definitely feel good about this opportunity.”

Within the construction field there are 26 sub trades, including general engineering, electrical, plumbing, roofing, dry wall, well drilling, excavating and heating and air conditioning.  “There are millions of directions,” said Brighthaupt.

A competitive grant through the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies kept the boot camp price affordable at $80 for 10 days, an average of $1 per hour.  Everyone enrolled at the boot camp was required to pass a drug test, must possess a California Drivers License, a high school diploma or equivalent and be at least 18 years old.  So far, of the 15 in the original crew, only 12 remain.  “In construction, buys quit all the time,” said Brighthaupt.

The group is a mix of a few with experience in the trade, three women, a life-long farm worker in his 40s, an ex-con who turned his life around and young men just out of high school.

Joel Baker, 20, a robust young lifeguard home from college at San Jose State, saw the ad for the boot camp in the paper and thought it would be a good chance to learn design but hopes that learning some carpentry will land him a summer job.  “I'm really learning the details,” he said.

There have been some reality show-like conflicts and Brighthaupt likes to team up people who don't get along, saying that everyone needs to learn to work together.  Such things as tardiness and a bad attitude are means for dismissal and developing a strong work ethic is a major goal of the program.  “They really have to buckle up because they know there's the door,” said Brighthaupt.

“It seems younger people coming into the field are weaker than my generation,” said Brighthaupt, attributing a lack of chores growing up and too many video games to the problem.  “An eight-hour day of hard work is out of their realm.”  “They're just grunts, and they have to earn their way.”

Brighthaupt says learning to work at the bottom is essential in this business, and employers respect and will reward those who aren't afraid to get dirty.  Entry-level pay starts at $10 to $12 per hour for ditch digging in the hot sun, but with experience and time, pay can reach $30 to $35 for journeyman level carpenters.

“That's all,” he said, “We're trying to make them the best grunts in the world.”

Article by Laura Brown
Lives in Nevada County and
covers the outdoors for The Union.

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