A CUT ABOVE A POIC student uses a circular saw at the North West College of Construction. photos by Jason DeSomer

In the midst of a development boom in Portland, Oregon’s construction workers are aging out of the business—and they aren’t being replaced. Following a decades-long national trend, Oregon’s high-school graduates are increasingly moving on to college rather than going into trade work.

Charles Manigo is trying to change that.

Sponsored
Folk-tinged art-pop duo Over the Rhine at the Aladdin Theater on November 14th

“Being a construction worker isn’t sexy,” Manigo says. “But this is a job where, at the end of the day, you can see what you did. It’s a very respectable trade.”

Manigo is the pre-apprenticeship coordinator at the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC), and he’s working to help young people of color and women get into construction, a field he says is stable and lucrative. Many of those who graduated from POIC’s initial pre-apprenticeship program, which finished early this summer, are now making more than $30 an hour, according to Manigo. The average construction wage in Portland is $26.16 per hour, according to a 2018 Metro report.

“We have seven folks under 25 set to make over $60,000 a year,” Manigo says.

The POIC Pre-Apprenticeship Training is a 12-week program that gives students aged 18 to 24 the opportunity to learn the basics of different trades, including carpentry, masonry, and welding. They attend class four days a week and are paid minimum wage for the instruction time; they also earn an OSHA-10 safety certification, which they need before they can start working. Twelve out of the 13 students in the current cohort are people of color, and four are women. After completion of the program, POIC helps set up graduates with apprenticeships in partner organizations, where they’ll get full-time jobs and receive ongoing training in their specialties.

Historically, Manigo says, construction jobs were passed along to younger generations through family connections, meaning they’ve primarily stayed in the hands of white men. Manigo wants to see that success spread to more people with low incomes, young people of color, and women—especially since local developers are starved for qualified workers.

On a smoky Thursday afternoon in August, the second cohort of the pre-apprenticeship program met in a classroom at the Northwest College of Construction in North Portland to begin framing a wall. Torre Sathrum is the group’s instructor—in a high-ceilinged classroom with big open doors to a side yard, he oversees students as they saw two-by-fours down to size and start building. Students carry boards over their shoulders, wearing hard hats, tool belts, and boots; three weeks into the program, they almost look at home on this pseudo construction site.

“I don’t expect them to come in as construction workers,” Sathrum says, “but we have 12 weeks to prepare them for what the industry is going to expect of them.”

He gestures at a student who’s hammering a board into the new frame. “Will’s got three kids,” Sathrum says. “I want Will to buy a house. I want Will to have a car. I want Will’s kids to see their dad go to work every day.”

“And I love you for it!” Will says, before asking for Sathrum’s guidance on his work.

On August 22, Portland City Council gave the program a $100,000 grant from the cannabis tax allocation program, a pot of money directed towards helping communities that have been harmed by the criminalization of cannabis. The POIC pre-apprenticeship program was one of three programs awarded funding, alongside a cannabis workforce incubator and a program in a public defender’s office that works to clear the records of those with cannabis-related criminal charges in Portland.

POIC will use that grant money to hire a new career coach.

“Even if they’re done with our program, they’re not done with their journey,” Manigo says. “So we’ll stay in touch with them, track them on through the journey to becoming journeymen in their trades. That could be four years, two years. But we’re still going to support them.”

One of the students, Trevon Moore, is already planning his welding career.

“I really don’t know anything about it yet, but I know they make good money, like $60 an hour,” Moore says. “I’ll buy a house, take care of my family, my girl. I’ve got a son who’s on the way, due in December. It’s for him, and I’ve got a daughter, too.”

Because the program is meant to help low-income students, Manigo says they have some grant money to help get the students to class or provide child care. “A lot of these young men and women have been told they’re inadequate, that they’re not good enough to go to college,” Manigo says. “But they’ve also been told that the only way you can be successful is going to college.”

Manigo argues that college isn’t necessarily the best route to success anymore. He graduated from college in 2007 with a political science degree and ended up looking for entry-level positions.

“College is great if you know what you want to do, but I feel like, especially with this generation, a lot of them go to college because they don’t know what to do,” he says. US Department of Labor statistics show that in 2016, nearly 70 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college nationally. In 1993, that number was just over 62 percent.

“There’s a cultural push to go to college, and that’s great, but there’s good, family-wage work that doesn’t require that,” says Dan Drinkward, vice president of Hoffman Construction in Portland. “From a purely economic standpoint, there are a lot of people who would be better off entering an apprenticeship program than going to college.”

The data backs that up. The share of young people going into blue-collar work in Oregon has dropped significantly since 1975, from 33 percent of men aged 18 to 24 to just 19.4 percent in 2017. The share of women aged 18 to 24 working in the trades dropped from 5.2 percent to 3.3 percent in the same time period.

Drinkward says that in the past decade, construction companies have become increasingly strapped for skilled workers.

Steve Simms is an administrator with the Bureau of Labor and Industries Apprenticeship and Training Division, an Oregon agency that monitors and promotes apprenticeship programs. He says the economic crash in 2008 cost the construction sector 29,000 jobs. But now that construction is booming, about 84 percent of open construction jobs are considered “difficult to fill,” compared to 64 percent in all sectors, according to state data.

“After 2008, we lost a ton of people out of our industry and they never came back,” says Drinkward. “But the construction demand came back. We’re doing it with a lot less employees.”

Simms adds that the construction workforce is aging. “Seventeen percent of the construction workforce is at or near retirement age, and about 32 percent of the workforce is at least 45 years of age,” he says. “Combine that with the decline in traditional trades education in our high schools over the past 40 years, and you have a situation that is ripe for a skilled workers’ shortage.”

If that shortage gets worse as baby boomers begin to retire, wages could rise. And with the city expecting to gain 8,800 construction jobs between 2016 and 2026, POIC apprentices are reaping the benefits.

“Even while you’re learning [as an apprentice], you’re making $25 an hour, and you get a pay increase every six months,” Manigo says. “I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.”