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Amid labor shortage, community college trains construction workers

The Waterloo Cedar-Falls Courier

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Anyone following the news about the construction industry’s protracted labor shortage knows it’s not a situation that’s unique to Wisconsin.

For further evidence of lengths officials in other parts of the country are going to to drum up interest in the trades, one need look no farther than Hawkeye Community Collage in Waterloo, Iowa, a city lying about 90 miles west of the Wisconsin border. In its battle against the labor shortage, the college has turned one of Waterloo’s neighborhoods into a training ground for the next generation of construction workers.

The sound of pounding hammers, power saws and heavy equipment recently filled part of the city’s Newell Street as students in the community college’s sustainable-construction and design program finished framing a house as part of a partnership with city government.

“This is real-life, practical experience you can apply to almost everything in the residential field,” Jacob Boeschen, a second-year student from Dunkerton, told The Waterloo Cedar-Falls Courier .

“I can’t really think of a better opportunity than coming out here and constructing a tangible house,” he added. “There’s only so much you can do in the classroom. This is coming out and getting your hands dirty.”

The city gave the vacant lot to the program, as well as up to $137,500 for materials and the plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems the students weren’t able to supply themselves. The city expects to sell the house and spend the proceeds on a similar property.

Former City Councilman Ron Welper, who came up with the idea nearly three years ago, said the program saves the city the cost of maintaining vacant lots and puts properties back on the tax rolls while starting new construction projects in neighborhoods that are starved for development.

“The whole idea is for us to go in and build a house or two and then have other developers follow us and build more homes,” Welper said. “This should be the incentive for others to start building in these neighborhoods that haven’t seen construction for years.”

Craig Clark, an instructor at the community college, said his students are getting hands-on experience putting up the one-story home with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a detached two-car garage and a high energy-efficiency rating.

“They’re getting to build a whole house from start to finish,” Clark said. “They’re out here in the mud, getting in the basket and doing all of that stuff.”

There’s a high demand for skilled construction workers. Clark said seven of his eight second-year students already have jobs lined up after graduating while most of the first-year students will have summer internships.

The local building community is also supporting the work. Many businesses are giving labor and materials, helping to drop the cost of the house well below the $137,500 price guaranteed by the city.

Mike Fereday Heating and Air Conditioning provided the furnace material and labor. Pella Windows was the source for all the windows, and Builders Select helped with other materials. Black Hawk Plumbing put in the sewer and water service at no charge, and Young Plumbing and Heating provided all the plumbing labor.

Mike Fereday said his experience with the community college’s mechanical-trades program left him enthusiastic about supporting the construction project.

“The students that come out of those classes are usually all hired before the class is finished,” Fereday said. “Our industry is so short of people that the tech schools, in my opinion, are so critical.”

Brandon Regan, of Waukon, and Taylor Kraninger, of Independence, are among the 20 first-year students working on the Newell house. They are likely to be working on the second house when they return for their second year next fall.

“I’m getting to do things hands on,” Regan said. “They really teach you well.”

Kraninger said he had done some concrete work in the past but was getting his first opportunity to hone his skill doing other things related to residential construction.

“I like being able to see what I’m doing and then have a finished product in front of me,” he said.

Clark said the class should have the house weather-tight and shingled before winter. That will let the students work indoors when it’s cold. The site of the second house is right next door.

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