More precious than gold: People with a trade skill

A plaintive, sometimes desperate cry is echoed all over the Rock these days from Deception Pass to Scatchet Head and all points in between. “Anybody know an electrician (or plumber, tile-setter, brick or stone mason, etc.) who can do a job right away?”

The silence in response is deafening.

The island economy is humming at a clip not seen since the collapse of 2008. People are eager to spend money again on long overdue improvements and repairs on their houses. New retirees and others are arriving with the land already purchased and their house plans drawn. Businesses want to expand their facilities or add new ones. But almost everybody is stuck waiting.

What’s missing are the skilled trades people to do the work. Many vanished nine years ago from Whidbey (and virtually every place else in the nation), and they haven’t come back.

“It’s a cultural problem in our country that happened after the economic crash,” said Ron Nelson, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council. “When construction work dried up, older skilled trades people threw in the towel and retired, and young people who might have gone into that work were encouraged to go to a four-year college instead of learning a trade.”

The result is that all of us who need an electrical or other skilled trade job done just have to wait. Weeks can turn into months for even relatively small jobs.

“Most of our builders have work backed up for a year or more,” said Wayne Crider, executive officer of the Skagit/Island Counties Builders Association. “When the recession hit, a lot of trades people either quit the field altogether or moved away to find work. Many younger ones went to the oil fields in Canada and North Dakota, others went to the Tri-Cities. Most of those aren’t coming back here.”

Meantime, many of the youngsters in high school during those recession years and then went to college have no interest in working construction jobs. The irony, of course, is that skilled trades are now in such demand on Whidbey and elsewhere that a good young electrician or plumber might earn $60,000 to $80,000 in a year, contractors say – far more than most new college graduates earn.

Ted Clifton, owner of Clifton View Homes in Coupeville, has been a Whidbey home builder since 1989 and serves this year as president of the Building Industry Association of Washington. He estimates there are fewer than half the skilled trade workers on Whidbey today as there were nine years ago.

“We’ve lost an entire generation of skilled trades,” he said. “Just finishing a job that used to take four and a half months now takes at least a year. People are coming out of the woodwork these days wanting us to build their new homes, but we can’t hire the workers to do it. I’m forced to send out letters to clients telling them their homes just won’t be built this year.”

This has also held down the number of permits issued for new housing in Island County – despite the obvious need for more housing. Last year, the number of permits was only about half what it was in 2007. There’s no point in getting one if you don’t think you will be able to build the house within the two years allowed by county permits, Clifton said. And so everything backs up and everybody waits.

There are some signs that things may improve. Some local contractors are offering to train workers with no experience in construction trades. “The only qualifications are that they be willing to work, arrive on time and be sober,” Crider said.

Regional, state and national task forces are working on ways to create more apprenticeships, training courses and job fairs. Some school districts are reinstituting trade skill classes that had abandoned.

“We need to get young kids interested in these careers, to see that these jobs can be interesting and pay well,” Clifton said. He hopes students will be encouraged to check out skilled trades rather than attend college.

But the task won’t be easy. A recent poll by the National Association of Home Builders found than only three percent of today’s teenagers would consider a career in construction. Many admit they don’t want to do jobs requiring sometimes hard physical labor.

And, since skilled trades are still a predominantly male field, Whidbey has a unique challenge. “There aren’t enough single young women on Whidbey Island so it’s not easy to find enough single young men who want to hang around this island and do this work,” Clifton said.

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