Local school officials promote trades, but say homebuilding’s not a good fit

County leaders say that a construction class designed to curb the area’s housing shortage by allowing students to work alongside contractors and gain on-the-job experience like the one created by the La Grande School District would not fit in Malheur County. 

Students in the La Grande High School construction class are building two townhomes on a pair of properties for Grande Ronde Hospital employees after learning the district received $515,000 in federal funding to start the program, according to George Mendoza, the district superintendent

Such programs are proving important to fill the shortage of workers in the construction industry.

Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur County Education Service District, said a homebuilding program for a district such as La Grande, one that offers woodworking and shop classes, makes sense. 

Ontario and La Grande High Schools, the largest in their respective districts, with 656 and 647 students, according to 2023 state data, each have a signature program, Redmond said. 

In Ontario, he said, the premier program is welding. The high school, in partnership with Treasure Valley Community College, offers classes that count for high school and college credit, and pumps out an average of 150 welding certifications yearly. 

Redmond said La Grande’s strong suits are likely the district’s woodworking and shop classes. With that, he noted that a homebuilding class likely dovetails much better than it would in Malheur County. 

The program 

Mendoza, who has been La Grande’s superintendent since 2017, said while the district’s building and trades programs are a good match, he researched other programs in Elgin, Hermiston, Forest Grove, Sherman and Salem to get a “blueprint” of what those districts were doing. Then, he said, La Grande educators worked on changing the district’s career and education curriculum to support a homebuilding program. 

Mendoza said leading up to the townhomes project, La Grande students took courses to prepare for the building project and apply skills learned in their math course to determine heights and measurements. 

Work on the construction site, such as running electrical wire, installing plumbing and pouring concrete, is done by contractors and subcontractors. However, he said, the students are still involved with the preparation, which includes building platforms to pour concrete and measuring and cutting wood for the carpenters. Some contractors and subcontractors, Mendoza said, are donating their time or have agreed to work below the prevailing wage to help the district with the cost. 

The construction class has eight students enrolled working on the home project that is expected to be done by the end of the school year, Mendoza said. However, he said, about 40 students from other career and technical programs, including agriculture, landscaping and design, will have contributed to the project by its completion. 

While the infusion of federal money boosted the homebuilding program, Mendoza said the district put other state and local money into the project.  

Building career and education programs  

Redmond said when education service districts administers an online career assessment that determines the level of interest and aptitude for different career clusters. The results drive the addition of any career track.

The top career clusters for high in Malheur County, Redmond said, according to last year’s assessment, are computers and technology, health careers, which include certified nursing assistant and phlebotomy and advanced manufacturing, which provides for welding, and agriculture and natural resources.  

Those results, in part, prompted Vale to roll out its certified nursing assistant program this year and for Adrian to start a computers and technology career and technical education program, Redmond said. 

“It’s interesting, a CTE program is very community specific,” he said. 

Vale’s automotive program is one of the district’s strongest, which sees a high number of students enrolled each year who become mechanics, he said.  

“If you drive around Vale,” he said, “there’s auto mechanics everywhere and a lot of it has to do with the program at the high school.” 

He said the same is true in Ontario with a number of welders in the area. The metal fabrication company, Fusion Bumpers, is located in Payette. 

Riley Hill, Ontario’s former mayor and a local builder, said about 30 years ago, Malheur County had a homebuilding program similar to La Grande’s. While he could not recall specific details about how long the program was around, he said it struggled to retain qualified instructors. 

Mendoza said that is a concern in La Grande. He said some teachers may be willing to learn those skills, which is why the district is paying for one its teachers to become a certified contractor. 

Getting students interested in the trades

Hill, who is also a member of the local nonprofit Poverty to Prosperity, an organization focused on career education in the county, said the country is realizing it needs skilled labor. Over the last three decades, the American economy has shifted to an information-based economy, where consumers can get products made cheaper in other countries like China, he said. 

With that, he said, Malheur County has taken meaningful steps to create opportunities for students to get into the trades. Earlier this year, Poverty to Prosperity met with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries to roll back the minimum age requirement from 18 to 16 for electricians and plumber apprenticeships. 

While the county does not have a carbon copy of the program of La Grande’s, Hill said, there are pathways to get students interested in a trade, from fabrication and welding to other aspects of carpentry and milling. 

“There are some things going on around here that will get the kids an education other than just going to college,” Hill said. “Because there is way more opportunity out there, I would say, right now in the trades and CTE.”  

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