Expanded college construction program fills labor gaps in Northern Arizona
A year ago, students of construction trades at Coconino Community College worked in cramped outdated quarters. Labor-strapped construction companies snatched them up upon graduation, or before.
Like much of the state, northern Arizona is seeing a construction industry on the rise. But qualified workers have long been in short supply.
“It’s challenging with our students trying to fit a schedule,” said Jeff Jones, dean of career and technical education (CTE) at the college. “Many are in evening classes so they can work at entry level during day and increase their skills at night.”
Now, there’s a beacon of hope with the completion of a newly expanded state-of-the art facility for the college’s Construction Technology Management program. It will allow the college construction program to triple its student count.
Premier training laboratory for all trades
The renovation was made possible, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Del E. Webb Foundation last year.
Del Webb’s grant allowed the college to expand current offerings and offer new in-demand programs like Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning and Refrigeration (HVACr) Technology, Welding Technology, Electrical Technology, Solar and Wind Technology, and Electronic Drafting.
Situated in the heart of Flagstaff, the newly renovated 5,000-square-foot facility is a showcase for the latest technology with new virtual reality welding, electrical and HVACr simulators.
“It’s what it should be to really get our students ready to walk in (to a job). We try to use the same tools, the same exact meters, the same code,” said Jones, who added that students at the college were the first in the country to pass the International Building Code 2018.
Homegrown labor for the region
With the expansion, the program gained the capacity to triple the number of students graduating with certificates and degrees from 30 to 94.
It couldn’t be soon enough, said Steve Hanson, the owner of Flagstaff Comfort Systems and a member of the Northern Arizona Building Association (NABA) board of directors.
“We’re very excited about it because the college is trying to groom the kids that are here and want to stay here instead of trying to import people who have no support system here, like mom and dad who can help pay the bills,” he said.
Annual minimum wage hikes mandated by the state and the city of Flagstaff are making hiring even more challenging, Hanson said.
“The basics of it is, if you can get paid $15 an hour to cook burgers instead of dig a ditch for a construction company, what are you going to do?”
Hanson, who donates used furnaces to the program so students can learn how to work on “old stuff” that isn’t necessarily in modern textbooks, said NABA has been working to promote and assist the development of much-needed CTE programs for students.
Demand for skilled workers to continue
Contractors and subcontractors have been knocking on the college’s door for years. Northern Arizona University’s Construction Management graduates also are in high demand.
The need is not expected to slow, Jones said, citing a number of proposed projects in the region including new development around the Navajo Nation’s gambling casinos.
Dual enrollment program to attract high school students
With the expansion complete, there is talk of a dual enrollment program to pull in local high school students. There are scant options for teenagers interested in construction trades, Jones said. One high school offers a welding program.
“Being able to offer a dual environment to really get high school students passionate about trades is one of the add-ins to this,” he said. “Young kids really like the look and feel of new stuff, the technology. So we really want to use that to attract the younger crowd.”
For more information about the college’s construction technology management and other programs, go to Coconino Community College.
This story was originally published at Chamber Business News.