August 10, 2005 - Home builders are saying the industry is facing a crisis, with a shortage of skilled labor to help build as the demand for new homes and businesses continues to grow.
But a longtime homebuilder and Southern Arizona's largest homebuilding association are teaming up to address the shortage by offering free training to those interested in training for a new career.
Beginning in September, the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association will offer the SAHBA Institute of Construction, a free school geared toward training students to perform the many skills of home building.
Roger Yohem, vice president of SAHBA, said the school was the idea of Tucson home builder Les Wolf, who brought a proposal for the school to the association.
Wolf's idea came by way of a long career in the home building industry, where he saw the problem of too few workers and workers who were there but who didn't have all the necessary skills to do a high quality job.
From 1982 to 1992, Wolf taught at Pima Community College, where he tried to address the problem on an individual level but didn't meet with much success.
"I needed to institute the support of a community," he said. "If you need to build a better hot dog, go talk to Oscar Meyer. If you want to build better homes, you need to go to the home builders."
And so he did. He knew that to pull off this type of program he was going to need not only the support of the home building industry but also its monetary support, and he found a captive audience with SAHBA.
Wolf said the average age of a person in the local homebuilding industry is 47 and unless they can attract younger labor they will be facing a more widespread worker shortage as the veterans reach retirement age.
"I knew we needed to do something," Wolf said. "And we've had only limited success relying on others outside the construction community" to train new workers.
To qualify as a student for the school, applicants must be 18 years old or older, read and write English, have doctors' letters saying they are physically capable of doing this type of work, and also agree to random drug testing.
There is no prerequisite minimum education level.
"What I am asking for is people who are motivated," said Wolf, who will screen the applicants.
Once accepted to the school, students will attend without having to pay tuition. All the costs of the programs are being paid by SAHBA and by its individual members who have made donations or volunteered to employ the students.
During the day, students will work with one of those volunteers in some aspect of the building industry and be paid minimum wage for their work.
They are required to stick with it for 40 hours each week, for 48 weeks. The students will rotate among different employers every six weeks so they are able to get hands-on training in seven different areas: plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, concrete, masonry, framing, and finish carpentry. The students also may chose from one of several electives including drywall, stucco work, insulation and painting.
In the evening, students will be required to attend a lecture, where they will learn the administrative details of the industry.
After 48 weeks in the field and 50 in the classroom, graduates will get a certificate verifying their completion of the program. Wolf said those students will not be experts in any particular trade but will have a diverse experience in all the major elements of the home building industry.
"If you walk in for a job anywhere, the manager will know he'd be a fool not to hire you," Wolf said. "You'll be able to learn that specific trade quicker than anyone else because you've already been exposed to it."
As it is now, people break in to the industry mostly through luck, Wolf said.
"You take a chance to walk in the door cold and hope someone has the patience to teach you," he said.
Both Wolf and Yohem said response to the program from those in the industry has been great and a handful of the largest developers in Tucson already have asked for names of the top 10 students from the program to hire for jobs that start at $30,000.
"It's education for direct employment," Wolf said about the school. "We aren't looking to profiteer, and we're not looking for college degrees."
Wolf said he still is looking for employer participants, those businesses that are willing to hire these student workers for internships.
If free school and a full-time job waiting in the wings seems too good to be true, Wolf admits there is a catch.
"They're going to be working those construction hours out there in the sun," he said.
But Wolf said the school will meet a socioeconomic need in the community, educating people who do not have the means or inclination to pursue a degree at a college or university.
"Not everyone who is delivering pizzas has to be," he said. "There are good paying jobs out there.
"The world of academia has its place, but for the average guy who wants to be a carpenter, there has never been the support structure for that guy.
"Not everyone will be a doctor or a lawyer. But there are people who like to go home for the day, turn around and see a monument to their work. That can be pretty rewarding." Those people, Wolf said, should apply to the construction school.
Wolf concedes that the homebuilding industry will always have "an ebb and flow" and that the need for employees will not always be as great as it is today, but he said he is sure that the best of those in the field will stay employed long after the demand has subsided and he is confident that having a certificate from the SAHBA Institute of Construction will signify that a person is at the top of his or her field.
"Right now, we have inadequate numbers of people and we are working them to death," Wolf said, adding that some companies have started offering signing bonuses if workers agree to stay for predetermined periods of time so the company knows it will have labor to finish a job.
"Everybody has the same problem - an inadequate workforce, in numbers and in skills. We need to address it before the quality of product starts to suffer," Wolf said.
The school already has received applications and will continue to accept them for a few more weeks. Wolf said he expects the selection process to be competitive, particularly in this inaugural year when there are only 50 available slots for students.
In addition to filling out the required application for gaining admittance to the school, Wolf said potential students are welcome to submit letters of recommendation or write their own letters telling him why they want to participate in the program.
He said there are no complicated criteria for being accepted to the school.
"Diligence and commitment to learning,: That's what I am looking for. And they have to be adaptable to new things in the market," he said. "It sounds simple, but there isn't anything in our industry that isn't based on logic and physics."
Yohem said SAHBA leaders are excited to be sponsoring this program and doing something to directly address the labor shortage.
He said he believes the increasing cost of homes in the area can be attributed to that shortage. While the need for new houses has boomed, he said it has become more difficult to find a skilled workforce, meaning it takes longer to build a home, which increases the cost to the buyer.
"It's Economics 101, basic supply and demand," he said, a problem facing other industries in the Southern Arizona, including the health and education fields. Yohem said the SAHBA school is "a proactive approach to the labor shortage."
Yohem said that there are enough positions available right now that the school could accept 350 students and they would find jobs upon graduation but that they are sticking to 50 for this first year as the school gets off the ground.
"We are emphasizing with the students that if they make the commitment to go through the school virtually all of them will be employable," he said.
Yohem said the work the students will do is hard and physical but that there is lots of room for advancement within the homebuilding industry and the school will prepare students for those opportunities.
"At some point, they will become next generation of superintendents and business owners, and that's where they get the rewarding, lucrative career," he said. "They can reach for the stars."