N.H. Construction Industry Looks to Build Workforce for the Next Generation

Dec 21, 2016

By all accounts, commercial and residential construction is on the rebound in New Hampshire. But many general contractors say an aging workforce limits how much the market can grow.

That’s why the New Hampshire Home Builders Association is leading a new effort to coax young people into the trade and connect them with local businesses. 

Related: With Workers Hard to Come By, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Opts to Apprentice Its Own

Matt Somers’ class at Alvirne High in Hudson is one of the places where that initiative is . In Somers' classroom, students don’t need desks or laptops. Instead, in a cavernous room, teenagers strap on tool belts, climb scaffolds and carry nail guns.

Senior Brian Covey feeds lumber into a table saw.

"Lately we’ve been working on the walls, putting up all the sheathing and plywood up," he explains.

Covey points to a large wooden box jacked up on a trailer with cutouts for windows.

"I’m just excited to do the whole project," he says. "It’s a fun project. We’ll get to do some interior, for like a house."

But this isn’t a typical house. It looks more like a mini-cottage, with all the digs anyone needs to live in year round — squeezed into 400 square feet.

Instructor Matt Somers says the projects gives the students a good grounding in the building trades.

"It will introduce them to all aspects of construction, even wiring and plumbing," he says. "They’ll have the basic knowledge to work for a framer. I’m hoping with the tiny house, when they start working for someone, at least they’ll have an edge up."

Somers’ class is part of a pilot program the New Hampshire Home Builders are supporting to beef up a shrinking construction workforce. By assembling these tiny houses, students pick up the kind of know-how that comes in handy on a real building site.

And for students like Collin Brennan, it’s a chance to gain some skills — without the hefty tuition bill.

"I don’t want to be in debt," Brennan says. "So if I could save up money to go to college, that would help out a lot more than being 20 or 30 thousand in debt, which I don’t want."

In trades like construction, this sort of on the job training is invaluable.

Robert Lerman, with the Urban Institute in Washington, says apprenticeships combine experience with academics. The problem is, they aren’t that widely available.

"Oddly enough, although we think of the United States having a major role in apprenticeships for construction, it’s not something most small to medium-sized construction firms do at the moment," Lerman says.

And in New Hampshire, these kinds of opportunities are on the decline.

While the community college system recently received more than a million dollars from Washington to boost apprenticeship programs, none were earmarked for construction.

And this fall, Manchester Community College closed its building trades program after 70 years.

There simply weren’t enough students.

John Stabile, a longtime developer in Nashua, remembers when his company built a house a year with students.

"But with the recessions and cutbacks at the school level, that stopped probably seven or eight years ago," Stabile says. "We lost a ton of skilled help. And we’re having a real tough time getting people to come into the industry."

Stabile says kids now seem to gravitate more towards high tech and manufacturing.

But Chris Lorden, a general contractor in Auburn, sees another reason for the lack of interest. He says guidance counselors push students away from careers they perceive as low-level like construction.

"It’s hard work," Lorden says. "But you know what? It’s satisfying. It’s like being an artist. You work with your hands. You get to see the end results. I never went to college. I started from the ground up. I worked out in the field. I ran million dollar projects. And I made a good living."

But now Lorden’s business is hitting a roadblock.

"The younger generation isn’t going into the trades," he says. "It’s just harder to find people qualified and willing to do the work."

Lorden hopes the Tiny House project like the one at Alvirne High will open more eyes to the construction field.

Back in Mr. Somers’ class, Collin Brennan puts the finishing touches on a wall.

Brennan and other students at four high schools will showcase their tiny houses at the New Hampshire Home Show in March. From there, they hope to graduate to building bigger homes — and earning decent paychecks.