New construction school looks to fill industry needs

Students will be exposed to such trades as carpentry, plumbing, masonry and electrical.
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Instructor BJ Wells works with students at the West Michigan Construction Institute. Courtesy WMCI

A new school in Grand Rapids is helping to produce more skilled trade workers in the construction industry.

The West Michigan Construction Institute (WMCI) officially opened its doors to students on Jan. 12.

The school is focused on teaching students who might be interested in pursuing a career as a skilled trade such as a carpenter, plumber, mason or electrician.

“Every skill is needed in the industry right now,” said Jen Schottke, president of WMCI. “I don’t know of a construction company or a particular trade contractor that does not have a need for a skilled tradesperson in their craft, whether it is brick masons or HVAC technicians or a sprinkler fitter. Every single trade is in demand right now.”

Schottke said statistics show that trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

“The statistics (show) that in the commercial construction industry over the past several years nearly 50% of our skilled trade force is going to retire in the next 15 years and we anticipate that that is likely being sped up by the pandemic,” she said.

To address the problem, Schottke said construction professionals in the region had been talking about the possibility of starting an institution for a few years.

“The idea of having a local comprehensive construction education center that offers trade education really started to get some legs three years ago,” she said. “The Associated Builders and Contractors did some feasibility work to determine if this is the right decision for the West Michigan market and ultimately the construction companies here, and just the community at large, agreed that this would be a valuable asset in our community.”

Schottke described the first four months as a “pilot semester” in which officials become accustomed to running a new trade school with a new team in a new building, located at 801 Century Ave. SW in Grand Rapids.

There currently is a limited number of students enrolled and limited courses that are offered in the classrooms and labs where students can perform hands-on activities at WMCI.

WMCI is partnering with three regional public school districts: Grand Rapids, Northview and Jenison. There are currently 11 high school seniors who are enrolled in the program who attend classes five days per week in the mornings.

“The courses include a high school program,” Schottke said. “Students are going through our Core Curriculum, which teaches the fundamental skills individuals need to either enter the workforce immediately upon the completion of the certification course or move on into continued trades education. In the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) curriculum, Core is the prerequisite for any one of the trade programs, whether students want to be a carpenter or a wielder, Core is that first class.”

The lead instructor for the high school program is BJ Wells, a former teacher at a local career tech center. The other instructors are journeyman or higher in their skilled trade and are trade certified through WMCI’s curriculum provider.

Additionally, WMCI provides craft education to construction employers and their employees, including concrete and carpentry programs that have 15 and 16 students enrolled, respectively.

WMCI also is providing professional development and certification courses, including a recent full-week specialty electrical training program and an upcoming blueprint class in February.

“We have three construction labs, so we are able to simulate the field in a controlled environment,” Schottke said. “Students are going into the lab. In the carpentry program, this is commercial carpentry. They’ll mock up a steel stud wall and they’ll put up a drywall, and they’ll work on a ceiling grid and those kinds of things. But the construction education way is typically individuals are employed and working in the field and getting those on-the-job training hours, practicing at work and working, and then coming to class one day a week or so to continue their education and furthering their knowledge of the trade so it is an earned-and-learned model.”

Once students complete the program, they will receive a WMCI certification and if they successfully pass the tests in all the modules for a specific level in the NCCER curriculum, students will then be certified at that level.

“In the case of our high school program, in the Core program, they’ll receive a NCCER Core certification and that is a national portable certification that is meaningful across the country,” Schottke said. “If they want to go to a trade school that offers NCCER curriculum in Texas or California or anywhere they want to go, they can continue there and just take those credits with them just like a college credit and a transcript.”

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