MISSOULA –Few courses at the University of Montana require mastering a circular saw to graduate, but for Sustainable Construction Technology student Amanda Parker, it’s all part of the classroom experience.
Parker, a first-year student in this popular Missoula College program, is learning from the foundation up – literally – what it takes to successfully construct buildings engineered to last. Her studies include site preparation, woodworking and how to expertly wield drills and other pieces of equipment.
“Some people have family experience working with tools but I didn’t,” said Parker, a northern California native who moved to Missoula when her boyfriend enrolled in UM’s wildlife biology program. “What I like about this program is how hands-on it is. We do new things every day.”
For the 30 students now enrolled in the program, the combination of classroom and site training – each class constructs a house – gives them the skills needed to successfully step into a job market facing severe worker and skilled labor shortages.
According to the 2020 Construction Outlook Survey by the Associated General Contractors of America, 81% of construction firms have trouble filling both salaried and hourly craft positions, and 72% anticipate labor shortages to be the biggest hurdle in the next year. A shortage of qualified workers and high material costs have contributed to housing shortages in many areas of the county, including Missoula.
“This program is an incredible opportunity to prepare for a lifelong career,” said program director John Freer. “And we try to make sure our students know that there is so much more to this than just pounding nails all day. If they have the desire and the aptitude, there is no limit to where they can go – from opportunities in dozens of specialty trades, management or even owning their own company.”
Missoula College has offered Sustainable Construction Technology for about four years. In addition to an Associate of Applied Science degree, the program offers certificates and micro credentials in carpentry, green building and other areas, which can be taken individually or while pursuing an associate’s degree. Students go on to work in any number of vocational trades, and some take the courses to augment hobbies and others to build their own house.
For now, a limited number of students are admitted to the program to keep the student-to-instructor ratio small, said Walt Wilson, an adjunct faculty member.
“The tools we use are not without danger, but the small student-to-instructor ratio keeps the students safe while teaching them to perform at an industry level,” Wilson said, adding that students also learn soft skills such as how to effectively interview for jobs.
“We teach students as if we were looking to hire them,” Wilson said. “That is as important in construction as it is with any other job.”
Steve Kinzel, a graduate of the carpentry program, worked for a number of years in the construction trade before joining trailer manufacturer Alcom eight years ago. He worked his way up from the shop and today is the Bonner location’s production manager. He credits his instructors with giving him the confidence to excel beyond his ability to work in wood.
“You learn the trade, yes, but you also take math classes and computer classes and you learn how to give a presentation,” he said. “It teaches you discipline and accountability.”
Alcom, he adds, works closely with Missoula College and has hired a number of its graduates.
While it may seem intuitive that all buildings would be built to last, that isn’t necessarily the case, Freer said. There are innumerable areas for waste in construction techniques, and students in the program learn the importance of not cutting corners.
“We’re teaching students to not only be efficient in the process of building but also the materials used,” he said. “Sustainable materials don’t have to be fancy. Where they come from, how they are made, how long they last, and what happens to them at the end of their life is more important.”
Parker, who also has an Associate of Arts degree in horticulture and has worked as a landscaper in Missoula, is particularly interested in using sustainable plant materials, namely hemp, in building construction. Although hemp’s use is limited for now, she sees great potential in the product.
“It’s mold resistant and fire resistant; it’s benefits go on and on,” said Parker, who will be interning this summer with a company that uses bio-based materials for wall systems.
While she isn’t sure where she’ll end up after graduation – maybe carpentry – she wants to build her own home and looks to land at a company that offers work/life balance and syncs with the culture and values now taught by her instructors.
“I want to work for a company that is conscientious and focused on safety,” she said. “Someplace careful with sourcing their materials, and concerned about longevity. And, of course, sustainability.”
Contact: John Freer, program director, Missoula College’s Sustainable Building Technology, 406-243-7668, firstname.lastname@example.org.