HELENA – The Montana Carpenters’ Joint Apprenticeship Training Center in Helena welcomed the public Thursday for an open house. It was an opportunity for the carpenters’ union to show off the newly refurbished facility.

“A few months back, we decided to remodel our facility,” said Mario Martinez, lead representative for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. “It was really looking old, dated and wasn’t meeting the needs of the industry anymore.”

Leaders say the training center is key to sustaining a skilled workforce in Montana. It hosts a four-year apprenticeship program. Apprentices are able to learn their trade while working under the supervision of experienced carpenters and earning a salary.

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“The apprentices are schooled on safety, first aid, CPR, metal studs, drywall, acoustical ceilings, bridge building, concrete forms – you name it,” said Martinez.

At the end of the four years, apprentices become journeymen carpenters, with the experience they need to take on a variety of construction jobs.

“What you have by having gone through the apprenticeship is you’ve proved that you have the skills to do the job when you get there,” said Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana State AFL-CIO. “If you don’t have that training, you’re walking in the door and competing with everybody else.”

Martinez said 39 people are currently going through the carpenters’ apprenticeship program.

“We’d like to see that number grow, and that was one of the reasons for this open house,” he said.

Leaders sent invitations to elected leaders and school districts around Montana. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney visited the training center Thursday, along with state lawmakers and representatives from Attorney General Tim Fox’s office.

Teachers and students from high school construction technology programs were also in attendance. They came from large cities like Billings and Missoula and from small communities like Darby and Brockton. The students got a look at some up-to-date technology, from virtual welding simulators to laser measuring tools.

Training center leaders highlighted the Career Connections program, a special curriculum to give high schoolers basic skills they will need to be successful apprentices.

“The students are job-ready when they come out,” said Martinez.

The centers also offers a pre-apprenticeship program, to make sure that people who start apprenticeships know what will be expected of them. Leaders say too many apprentices drop out after the first or second year.

An August report from the Montana Department of Labor and Industries says the construction industry is the state’s fastest-growing. It projects construction employment to increase 2.7 percent annually – an additional 815 jobs each year.

Training center leaders also said many of Montana’s current trained carpenters are likely to retire in the coming years. That will leave a lot of opportunity for young people willing to work hard.

“The sky is the limit for them,” Martinez said. “As long as they’re showing up for work on time, ready to have good attitudes and be productive, they can go anywhere in this industry.”

The training center remodel was funded by contributions from working carpenters around the state. The union’s members pay into a training fund for each hour they work.