High school house program highlights value of trades; needs funding to continue

Construction on the 41st high school house is underway with students from Great Falls High and C.M. Russell High School serving as the design and construction team.

The project, which is a partnership between Great Falls Public Schools and NeighborWorks Great Falls, will take about nine months and provide a single family home for low to moderate income individuals in the community.

The project is done through the construction technology course at the high schools, under the direction of Pete Pace.

He said the program provides hands-on training that translates directly to job prospects upon graduation.

“The program is a work-related or internship-like experience that provides not only specific career-oriented instruction, but also students learn important manual competencies and problem solving skills that can be used throughout their lives or to form a foundation for a career in the skilled trades,” Pace said.

GFPS has coordinated with the Montana Department of Labor so that students who complete the program can earn up to 400 apprenticeship hours.

During a groundbreaking ceremony this week, Pace said the trades are often marginalized but they require a high level of professionalism and are in high demand.

The City of Great Falls inspects the project throughout the year to ensure the completed house meets all federal, state and local building codes.

Jim Davis, a shop foreman at Dick Anderson Construction, attended the groundbreaking since his son, Jevin, is participating in his second high school house build. His two older sons both did two high school house builds.

Davis, who has worked at Dick Anderson for 24 years, said there needs to be a shift back to offering more shop classes and vocational programs.

Right now, there isn’t much of a push for students to consider the trades and employers are struggling to fill their ranks.

“All of the trades are suffering,” Davis said.

Since the high school house program provides apprenticeship hours, that increases the chances for students to get jobs after graduation and also lowers costs for employers since they’d otherwise have to pay a person while they acquire all those hours.

Learning the skills required for construction, meeting code requirements and more is a big part of the program, but it imparts another valuable lesson on students.

“It’s just a good work ethic,” Davis said.

The lack of workforce is showing nationally and in Great Falls. Davis said his company has struggled to find laborers and some of their supervisors are doing the work of laborers.

That increases costs and many of those older workers will be retiring soon and there’s not enough young people coming in behind them, Davis said.

His company has partnered with Great Falls College-MSU to create a Montana Registered Apprenticeship that includes 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and related instruction, which is often in a classroom.

Since 1941, the Montana Registered Apprenticeship program housed within the state Department of Labor and Industry has worked with business sponsors to launch apprenticeship programs and put Montanans to work. In 2017, the state legislature voted to provide a tax credit to companies offering training programs through the Montana Registered Apprenticeship program.

Companies receive a $750 tax credit for each new apprentice or $1,500 for apprentices who are veterans.

“Today, apprenticeships are putting Montanans to work and expanding talent pipelines for businesses across the state,” Commissioner Galen Hollenbaugh said in March.

Apprenticeships help grow Montana’s workforce, while also supporting local economies. In 2015, the average wage of a registered apprentice was almost $38,000, which is higher than the earnings of a typical working college student. After completing their training program, apprentices go on to earn significantly higher wages.

“Apprenticeship programs add to Montana’s human capital, which promotes economic growth,” Hollenbaugh said. “Economies with greater human capital grow more quickly, are more likely to innovate, and are more nimble in responding to economic needs.”

The high school house program previously included two construction projects annually, one for each high school. GFPS budget cuts last year reduced that to one house with students from both schools.

Now, the program is in jeopardy since NWGF had funded the land acquisition, contracting and permitting through Community Development Block Grant allocations.

This year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pulled the funding that had been designated for the high school house due to concerns over conflict of interest within the city’s CDBG program.

Sherrie Arey, NWFG director, said they’re actively looking for creative ways to fund the program and ensure it continues and ideally returns to two houses annually.

The cost of construction outpaces sale prices and Arey said they’re working to find funding to maintain the program and also keep the homes affordable for local families.

The land for this year’s high school house was donated to NWGF by Paul Stachi.

NWGF helped Stachi get into the trailer that was on the lot many years ago and he donated the lot and trailer back to NWGF upon his passing specifically for the purpose of a high school house.