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Students learn skilled trades at LCC while helping build a 'Brighter Future' for the homeless

Across the U.S., there’s a growing shortage of workers in skilled trades. The nation’s carpenters, electricians, and plumbers are getting older and hanging up their hard hats for good. Meanwhile, across Oregon, homeless people are struggling to find safe and secure shelter. A new program at Lane Community College aims to alleviate both those problems, called “Constructing a Brighter Future.”

With every nail hammered, every board cut, and every hinge drilled into place, over 100 high schoolers from across 15 districts are learning a trade, while helping those in need.

Student builders with measuring tape and boards.
Brian Bull
Student participants of "Constructing a Brighter Future" are measuring and cutting boards for sheds and shelters.

"This is going on in every high school in Lane County, from Oakridge to Florence,” explained Lee Kounvosky, the construction trade sector specialist for Lane Education Services District, as he walked through Building 12 at Lane Community College. Lane ESD has partnered with Lane Workforce Partnership on this program.

The large workshop space teemed with students wearing hard hats, safety glasses, and gloves, as well as structures in various stages of completion. The air was filled with sawdust and chatter.

“Ah, this is the shelter right here," said Kounovsky, stepping inside a nearly-finished piece. "As you can see, it’s an 8 x 12 shelter. Inside there’ll be a bed, a desk, and a closet.”

Kounovsky’s eyes betray the smile his bushy mustache covered as he described how the teens will earn a certificate for apprenticeships, and get high wage, high demand jobs after they leave school.

“This is one of those perfect projects where we get to teach kids construction skills (and) we’re doing the community some service," he said. "It just checks all the boxes.”

Teams will spend weeks building shelters for SquareOne Village or EveryOne Village, two sites providing transitional housing for unhoused people.

Paul Rea, a full-time faculty member at LCC’s Construction Department, told KLCC that Constructing a Brighter Future offers a two-fold benefit for the Eugene community.

“The homeless situation has provided an opportunity for us to train on those buildings,” he said. “But the industry needs qualified folks. They need good workers, and they’re desperate for them. And I don’t think people realize the level of desperation. Contractors in the area are very interested in getting new recruits.”

Census Bureau figures show nearly one-fourth of construction workers in Oregon are 55 or older. With many senior builders and craftsmen aging out of the workforce, this leaves a sizable gap employers will have a tough time filling. That puts students here in a good place, as they plan their future.

Carpenter with measuring tape.
Callum Hill
Carpenter measures width between ceiling beams.

“I got involved because it’s really good work and the trades never die,” said Colt Arcieniega, a South Eugene High School student. “And that helps us to help our community in real ways. I hope to work in construction jobs, just anywhere I’m needed.”

“I get the really cool experience of getting to use all these cool tools,” added Morgan Collins, another SEHS student and program participant. “And to know that what I’m building will actually be able to go back to the community and be something that people will use and benefit from. It just makes me feel really good and it keeps me coming here every day.”

'It's like a real room'

On the opposite side of town, Chuck Clearman showed off his shelter. It's a prototype of those currently being built by the students. He’s a longtime resident of Everyone Village in West Eugene.

“As you can see, I’m into playing chess on top of my ‘frigerator which is very nice.”

Homeless person wrapped under blanket on street.
Brian Bull
A homeless person in downtown Eugene tries to keep warm under a blanket.

Clearman’s abode has a mini-fridge, heater, and space for his rock collection and winter sports gear—and a very nice break from the chilly, damp streets of Eugene.

“It is a very nice place," said Clearman. "Warm, quiet. It’s like a real room.”

Another Everyone Village resident, Kevin Martin, said he’s excited to be on the waitlist for his own shelter from Constructing a Brighter Future.

“Having your own place to stay, no one can mess with you," he said. "No one can tell you to move. It’s like your own miniature house.”

Martin, a former plumber, said that he hopes to get his shelter in the next six months.

“I was out on the streets of Eugene for about four years in a van and one year in my car," he said. "And the dangers of people on drugs, and people with guns and knives and things like that. It gets scary.”

Kounovsky, of Lane ESD, said they hope to build 30 temporary shelters by this June. Students are also making sheds for people trying to rebuild after the Holiday Farm Fire.

Kounovsky added that they have funding from a number of partners, but he’s hoping private donations can help out the program.

©2023, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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