Skilled labor careers blooming again in schools
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — When local business owner Jeff Rhone signed on to teach shop at O’Gorman High School more than a year ago, he hoped to revitalize a class that had been dwindling in numbers. When the program stopped a few years ago, only five to seven students were taking it each semester.
But thanks to a grant from the Sioux Empire Home Builders Care Foundation, the class is receiving new life. While planning for its first year, Rhone estimated he would have between eight and 12 students a semester.
He was wrong.
“The first semester, we ended up with 45,” Rhone told the Argus Leader. “It exploded.”
O’Gorman is one of several high schools refocusing on skilled trades by partnering with local businesses. Employers in the Sioux Falls area are making a concerted effort to connect with students as young as high school and even middle school after years of facing the region’s ongoing short supply of workers, dragged down by persistently low unemployment.
The result has been a rise of programs, camps and classes designed to expose youth to trades such as architecture, construction and welding, and even the return of shop courses that were previously shelved in K-12 schools.
The 2.3% jobless rate in the Sioux Falls metro area in September was one of the 50 lowest in the United States, according to rankings for nearly 400 metros by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment in South Dakota’s largest city consistently hangs well below national averages for the rest of the state and the country.
The result is a competitive push across industries to attract and retain workers. Those in the skilled trades, including Sioux Falls’ increasingly busy construction industry, have started planning for the future.
Dusty Rallis, owner of Rallis Construction, said his industry’s needs for workers have continued to increase with the growing population and the addition of new neighborhoods and commercial developments.
“The demand for new construction, it’s always going to be there,” Rallis said. “We just have not had the workforce to get the required work done.”
The labor pool plummeted in 2009 when the housing bubble popped and caused the Great Recession. Construction employers in the Sioux Falls metro lost more than 2,000 workers during the two years of fallout, according to data from the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation.
The labor pool wouldn’t surpass pre-recession levels until 2016. The construction workforce in the four-county metro reached an all-time high of 22,969 workers in 2018, according to the state labor department.
“We’re getting more people interested earlier on because we’re doing this exposure in high school and middle school,” said Denise Guzzetta, vice president of talent and workforce development for the Sioux Falls Development Foundation.
BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE
More than ever, contractors and leaders in the trades are working to reach out to educators and students. The development foundation hosted a Talent Draft Day event in October, connecting employers across the region with more than 600 students interested in skilled trades, including students from 12 high schools.
The day was designed as a chance for employers to connect with the region’s future generation of workers.
“I think what’s happening is we have a really engaged business community,” Guzzetta said.
Rallis is the current president of the Home Builders Association of the Sioux Empire, which in recent years has worked collaboratively with schools and businesses to introduce new ways to reach out to the city’s future workforce.
The association worked with Sioux Falls public schools to develop a carpentry apprenticeship program at the Career and Technical Education Academy. It started a summer camp for seventh- and eighth-graders from across the region in 2016, an effort that will soon start showing a return on investment, Rallis said.
The association is also involved in Harrisburg’s push to increase its construction programming, and this year helped O’Gorman restore its once-defunct building trades program.
Rallis, a 1995 O’Gorman grad, is an alumnus of the program and was involved in the conversations leading up to its re-introduction.
“We helped them bring that back to life,” he said.
At O’Gorman, the construction program has been so successful that Rhone decided to cap the number of students per year at 32 to ensure there are enough tools to go around.
In one class, students start out learning to swing a hammer and learn to build a shed as their final project. In another, they learn framing and how to hang doors and windows. Local businesses are also brought on board to teach teens the basics of plumbing, electrical and drywall.
“All these companies have been just great,” Rhone said.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
Another high school making a big splash is Harrisburg. Situated in Lincoln County, one of the fastest-growing in South Dakota, the school saw an opportunity to develop programs that help meet the needs of the community.
“Schools for generations have asked for internship opportunities, and I think a lot of times that’s viewed as a stress on a business,” said Michael Amolins, the district’s curriculum director. “If we can approach it and say, ‘For a couple of years, we will train (students), make sure they have the skill set needed so when they come to you … they’re ready to go, that’s a win for everybody.”
As part of that goal, Harrisburg began a new construction program this year geared toward teaching students the basics of home building. Armed with a $250,000 workforce education grant and a $250,000 grant from the Sioux Empire Home Builders Care Foundation, the school is wrapping up a new building in which students will construct homes for low-income families.
Affordable Housing Solutions in Sioux Falls is partnering with Harrisburg students on the class, Amolins said. While students build the home using materials provided by Affordable Housing Solutions, the organization will choose a community revitalization lot, purchase the land, select a family to buy the home and move the finished house to the site.
Construction on the first home will begin in January. The house will eventually be moved to a lot on Duluth Avenue near 10th Street, Amolins said.
While Amolins acknowledges that Harrisburg is not the first school to pursue such a project, he says the facility that will house the project is unique.
“There are a lot of schools that have construction programs, but a lot of them are building homes outside,” he said. “What’s nice about this is they’re out of the elements, it’s going to be a quality home, it’s going to be sealed.”
Although inclement weather over the summer pushed back the timeline on the new building, teachers got creative. While waiting for the building to be finished, students built a large storage shed that will be put up for auction, Amolins said. Students are also building tables, shelves and other furniture for the new building
The Tea Area School District is another local district reinvigorating its career and technical education programs. Through a workforce development grant, the district is building a shop on the high school campus to offer welding, construction and architecture classes in fall 2020. While some Tea students have been taking classes at the CTE Academy in Sioux Falls, the new shop will allow them to stay on campus and get a similar experience.
“We’ll be able to reach way more students than we currently do,” said Tea superintendent Jennifer Lowery.
REVERSING THE STIGMA
Rallis, who founded his home building company in 1999, noticed the industry’s current labor shortage by how it was affecting his subcontractors, from concrete workers to carpenters.
“The demand for good workers is going to be a lot of different aspects of the trade,” he said.
Meanwhile, schools started to pull the plug on classes that allowed students to try their hands at the skilled trades while the industry coped with parents’ preconceived notions about what a career in construction meant for their child.
The resurrection of his alma mater’s building trades program represents a “big step” toward overcoming the stigma about working in the trades, Rallis said.
On top of bringing back shop, O’Gorman is revamping its drafting course and purchased four 3-D printers to help students visualize their work. It is also beginning an architecture class next year using the same software used by local firms.
When students move on to college or technical school, they will hopefully be familiar with the programs they will use in the real world, Rhone said.
Harrisburg isn’t done, either. The school is currently working with Schulte Subaru in Sioux Falls to create an auto shop program that is slated to begin next fall.
“We’re excited to see where this goes,” Amolins said.
Amolins, who grew up in a blue-collar family, has particularly strong feelings about making opportunities for students who don’t follow a traditional path. While many of Harrisburg’s students will go on to college, many will not, and it is part of the school’s responsibility to help them decide what’s next.
“It’s not preparing everybody for a four-year degree,” he said. “It’s preparing them for the future that they want.”