When Kory Boling, director of the Home Builders Association of Alabama Foundation, was growing up, he says, you had to attend college to get the job you wanted.
“Learning a trade was discouraged,” he says. “You did not want a job requiring dirty hands.”
“The focus on university degrees for everybody has switched,” Boling says. “Maybe four years of college is not for everybody. Maybe a better decision for many is to receive a great education from a junior college and come out with a trade and no student loans.”
He continues, “The national average salary for skilled residential construction trades starts at a little over $60,000 a year. In 10 years, graduates could have their own businesses with employees working for them.”
However, the HBAA warns, the supply does not meet demand. “Residential construction is one of the largest labor forces out there,” says Boling. “It involves so many trades.”
Alabama’s 8,000-member HBAA, among the largest in the nation, represents plumbing, builders, remodelers, HVAC, masonry, electricians and more. And every one of those industrial trades, he says, faces a worker shortage.
The HBAA Foundation has always administered scholarship programs for trade class students. But in recent years, the association has become more proactive in promoting trades and spreading the word of good incomes from such occupations.
Take carpentry, for example. According to Go Build Alabama, from 2016 to 2026, carpentry employment is projected to grow 8%.
In addition, a recent study by property search website NeighborWho reported that from 2019 to 2020, Alabama’s new single-family residential construction permits increased 19.4%, the ninth-largest state increase in the U.S.
HBAA is doing more than sounding the alarm. Last March the home builders organization partnered with Lurleen B. Wallace (LBW) Community College, providing an eight-week course in basic residential carpentry. No previous experience was required and participants did not have to be enrolled in the school to take the classes.
Attendees were limited to 15 students per class. More than 60 applied.
The HBAA has done similar projects with community colleges across Alabama but this was the first for LBW.
“We opened the course to the community,” says Chad Sutton, LBW Community College’s director of workforce development. “We had students from all walks of life and all ages — high school to retired people in their 60s take the course.”
Basic carpentry was chosen as LBW’s first such training because the subject covers many aspects. “Residential carpentry skills translate to other trades as well,” notes Sutton. “Many think it is all about framing houses.”
But “carpentry involves framing windows, door installations, trim work and much more,” he says. “Carpentry is used throughout the entire construction process. A working knowledge of carpentry prepares students for other trades as well.”
The training was a basic crash course introduction, with hopes to encourage students to pursue carpentry and other residential building courses and consider making it a career.
“We tell enrollees that once done with this course, you will not be ready to go out and build a house. But you will be productive on any construction site based on the skills taught here,” Boling adds. “The skills you get from this course can translate to other trades.”
Having said that, the course is no cakewalk. Classes met every Tuesday and Thursday night for eight weeks. Students were advised not to be absent. “Even missing one session is hard to catch up,” notes Sutton. “Missing over two and you’re done — unless the instructor agreed for you to stay after class or come in early to catch up.”
Training includes everything from framing stairways, interior trim, baseboards and finishes to reading tape measures and blueprints.
“There is much to learn in carpentry,” says the college’s Building Construction Instructor Andrew Meadows. “Construction is much more than just sticks and bricks. It covers many grounds.”
“It is exciting seeing students come together and pull their backgrounds together to grasp all aspects of carpentry,” Meadows adds.
One such student is Daniel Estes. “I enrolled in the course to expand my resume,” the student says, recalling the eight-week endeavor. “Classes were fun but challenging. Meadows was a big influence on me. In addition to teaching, he pointed out the good points of learning the trade — better jobs, good incomes. I am looking at pursuing carpentry as a career.”
The teacher responded, “I am glad that the class touched a spark in Estes and others to where they want to see more of it in the classroom.”
The course was free. All materials, tools, training, everything at no cost to the student. “The foundation underwrites the costs,” says Boling. “It is a good investment in a tool that gets folks into these much-needed fields.”
While this was the first course for LBW Community College, it will not be the last.
“I plan on doing this next year,” says Sutton. “Any time you offer this kind of skill and development training for people in the community, the response is good. Our carpentry program will continue to evolve and focus on skill development.”
“We want students to take advantage of high wages and high opportunities out there,” he adds. “We want them prepared.”
On the final class, graduation night was more like a celebration. Career possibilities were discussed. Some students were offered jobs.
Several local industry leaders helped build influence and interest in the course with the community. “They ranged from sole proprietorships to major corporations,” recalls Meadows. Participants included such heavyweights as Wyatt Sasser, Wright Brothers Construction and Abram Homes.
Graduates received National Center for Construction Education and Research credits and a certificate of completion from the HBAA.
“It’s been a huge hit,” Sutton notes about the college’s partnership with the home builder association. “We all came to this with the same vision.”
LBW’s workforce director is also trying to build similar programs in elementary and middle schools. “If this happens, trade skill training will continue all the way through high school and into college or a job,” says Sutton. “That is my vision and I think the home builders’ association dream as well.”
Emmett Burnett is a Satsuma-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Business Alabama.