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New blueprint for building up the force of Colorado construction workers

A construction worker with Four Suns Construction out of Aztec checks steel work Aug. 15 on an entryway to the La Plata County Courthouse in 2016. (Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald file)

Colorado needs to build more housing. It also needs the people to build more housing. Denver’s BuildStrong Academy is trying to bridge the gap between those two needs.

The academy is backed by Oakwood Homes, one of the largest homebuilders in the Denver area. It offers a six-week course that teaches students the basics of construction such as safety, how to use power tools, read blueprints, and the difference between ‘plumb’ and ‘level’. Participants in the tuition-free program receive a certificate at the end.

“All students will go through what we call our construction skills boot camp,” said Allison Stepnitz, the academy’s director. “Then if they’re interested, we offer an upper-level construction class.”

The picture of the job market for construction workers is murky in Colorado. As of March, Colorado employed 182,100 people in the construction industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a decline of 1.3% from the same time last year. That makes the state a laggard when it comes to job growth in the construction industry. It’s one of only 10 states that lost construction jobs during that time frame.

The course is based on an apprenticeship model, according to Stepnitz. That means about 25% of the work is taught in a classroom, while the remaining 75% is hands-on learning, she said.

Students come from various backgrounds, including people experiencing homelessness, those with criminal backgrounds and people who simply want to change careers. The average age of participants is 32.

“We offer classes in the mornings, in the afternoons and night classes … In the morning often are people who are unemployed or underemployed, and then our night students are folks who are working full-time and wanting to change career directions,” Stepnitz said.

There are two career coaches at the school to help students with interview skills and introductions. Last year, in a class of roughly 200, 68 people got jobs in construction.

The program doesn’t have the resources yet to accept people from the recent surge of new immigrants to the Denver area. The language barrier makes it difficult, Stepnitz said. BuildStrong is in discussions with partner organizations about the possibility of developing a Spanish-language curriculum. But those talks are preliminary.

“We did just hire a Spanish-speaking instructor, which our team is really excited about,” Stepnitz said.

The academy is moving to a new location at the Community College of Aurora next year.

“We needed to find a new location, and we’ve been partnering with the Community College of Aurora since the beginning,” said Amy Schwartz, the former director of the academy. She now works in social responsibility and community partnerships at Oakwood. “There’s a whole other level of support services that our students will be able to access at the college … Many of our students have barriers to employment, and we have staff and some partners that support students through those barriers, but that’s a big part of what community colleges do.”

On top of that, the new facility will be near public transit.

The program is designed for people who are serious about a career in construction. But not everybody ends up going into the business. And that’s OK, Schwartz said.

“Sometimes our students get a job, but it’s not in construction,” Schwartz said. “It’s still a win because sometimes it’s important to figure out what you don’t want to do, too.”

To read more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.