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Demand soars for construction workers in Alexandria area

The VBA offers students $2,000 of scholarship money to go into any trade program to tackle labor shortages.

Carpentry student Anthony Fitzer marks a piece of metal during the carpentry competition.
Alexandria Technical and Community College carpentry student Anthony Fitzer marks a piece of metal during the carpentry competition for the state SkillsUSA competition at the college.
(Lowell Anderson / Alexandria Echo Press)
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ALEXANDRIA – How dire is the labor shortage in construction?

Its prompted the Vikingland Builders Association of Alexandria to offer two $1,000 payments to two students entering a building trade program.

The student will get the first $1,000 after they show proof of completion of their first semester, and the second payment will come after they show proof of enrollment into their second year.

"I'm just hoping this attracts young people and they'll realize it will make college more affordable for them. And it makes (people) open their eyes to our trade," said VBA board member Dan Klimek, co-owner of Northwoods Construction. "It's hard work. There's no doubt about it. But you can make a good living."

Jon Cullen, who just finished his two-year term as president of the VBA, says the purpose of the scholarships are to encourage young people to get into the building industry and meet the needs of local builders that are facing a lack of labor.

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"The labor shortage is something that I think all of our members are dealing with right now. Specifically, the building trades. They were having shortages before everybody else was having shortages due to COVID," said Cullen. "With the scholarship, we're just trying to encourage more kids to get into the trades. And there are great opportunities – holy buckets."

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 2021 saw 7,504 job vacancies in the construction industry alone. Almost 3,000 more than 2020, which saw 4,712 vacancies. The Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission's website, Living Alexandria Area, lists 55 potential job opportunities in construction and 57 for manufacturing and production in the Alexandria area.

Things are growing, and people need places to live
Les Zimmerman

The labor shortage in the building and manufacturing industry has caused the cost of building materials to go up in price, but that has not slowed down the demand.

"I think it's your basic supply and demand when there are not as many workers, things get more expensive," said Cullen.

Alexandria Technical and Community College carpentry instructor Les Zimmerman says he read that the carpentry industry alone will need about 420,000 new employees in the next year and another million in the next two years to fulfill the need.

"And it's not only in the carpentry but electrical, plumbing, heating and masonry. It is all of it," said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman said as far as the carpentry program in Alexandria goes, its enrolment numbers have been up but are still low when compared to pre-2008 recession numbers.

"We started with 26 students this year, with 22 coming back in the spring, which is good. It is an increase of what we've had in the last few years, although back in 2008 and prior, we were starting around 65 students," said Zimmerman. "When the economy changes, that's when you see a big downturn in the industry."

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"There's just a shortage of young people that are wanting to get involved with it. I started noticing it probably about five years ago, but it's just gradually getting worse," said Justin Anderson, 43, VBA board member and owner of Shaa Construction of Alexandria.

Anderson speculates that after the recession of 2008, guidance counselors pushed students away from trades and advocated for them to go to a four-year university — for job security — rather than a two-year technical school. With the economy rising since then, so has the demand for construction jobs but there's not enough workers to meet the demand.

Anderson graduated from Alexandria Technical and Community College in 1999 and has owned his own construction business for the last 16 years.

The VBA's goal with the scholarship is to offer students a way of paying for school, bringing awareness of the demand for trade labor, showing the potential workers can earn in the industry, and explaining why the jobs are essential for the community.

Skills 1959.jpg
Alexandria Technical and Community College carpentry student Jordan Wegner studies a blueprint while constructing a small building during the state SkillsUSA competition at the college.
(Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)

"Things are growing, and people need places to live," said Zimmerman.

"The biggest thing is to raise awareness that the trades really can use some help. Somebody going into the trades will have a good income for many years to come," said Anderson. "To keep the communities growing, you need builders. If all of a sudden the community doesn't grow anymore, what's going to bring people here? You know, the more people you have coming into your community, the more money goes around the community, the better the community thrives."

The VBA's scholarship will give two applicants $2,000 each to pay their education bills. The money will distribute in two payments of $1,000.

Potential recipients must fill out a scholarship application and write up why they choose to go into a trade program to receive the scholarship. To obtain the first payment, the recipient will have to complete one semester of a trade program at any school. According to Cullen, the second payment will distribute after proof of a second-year enrollment.

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Jeff Wild, Alexandria Technical and Community College’s vice president of Advancement and Outreach, said the average tuition cost for trade programs is about $5,900. And tools can vary from $1,000 to $8,000, depending on the program.

"Tools for diesel mechanics are a lot more expensive than, say, carpentry tools," said Wild.

WildJeff21.jpg
Jeff Wild

"It's a great opportunity for students looking for additional ways to pay for their schooling. I mean, it's, it's a fantastic thing they're offering," said Zimmerman. "It's a great industry to be; there is a lot of self-satisfaction, opportunity and wherever you go in the United States, they're looking for work. With commercial jobs, we've got companies offering up to $26 an hour with full benefits."

Zimmerman and Wild both agreed trade jobs have a 100% job placement.

"Right now seems to be a time where young people are evaluating whether a four-year school is worth it – whether the return on investment for time spent in an educational environment. I think we are seeing more students coming to trades," said college President Michael Seymour.

Alexandria College offers other ways students can get an education for almost free.

The Srock Construction scholarship awards three students enrolled full-time in the carpentry program $500. The students must hold a minimum 2.5 GPA, have good attendance and demonstrate a financial need. Preference is given to students from the Alexandria area.

Seymour says with money from ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act, which gave Douglas County $500,000, residents who are unemployed or underemployed due to the pandemic can qualify to receive financial assistance toward any program offered at Alexandria College. Essentially, this allows residents to go to college for free.

"Twenty percent of our students come in and receive a full Pell Grant, which is close to the total cost of tuition and fees. So for them in some ways, you could say, it's free college," Seymour said. "But it could be that they get a partial Pell, $2,500, from the federal government. And so these last dollars in programs will pay the difference through the Minnesota Futures Together Grants, or if you're a Douglas County resident who's been unemployed, the county will pay the difference."

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Michael Seymour

Seymour says the caveat is that students who participate in the program will need to spend at least one year in the county working to fulfill the needs of the promise and to help reduce the workforce shortage of Douglas County.

"I don't think we're going to have any challenges filling or spending that money locally," said Seymour. "We are anticipating about 100 potential students."

Future students can find dozens of more scholarships on the college's website.

"For me, I grew up in a trades family; my dad and my uncles were all tradesmen. So, when it comes to the trades and the value, investment, support and promotion of trades as a viable career path, it hits home for me," said Seymour.

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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