Workers Needed to Build & Repair Dreams in Phelps County

3 Oct 2017

Building someone’s dream home or kitchen or helping restore air conditioning on a sweltering summer day is a rewarding accomplishment. It’s something that local contractors get to be a part of every day in jobs that provide flexibility and allow them to combine creative and problem-solving skills.

However, it’s hard to find skilled construction workers, plumbers and heating and air contractors in Phelps County and across the nation. Local contractors are all seeking qualified help, and these jobs are available without amassing a mountain of college debt.

Wendell Connell, co-owner at Edgren Building, said it’s a struggle to find good quality workers. His business works on residential and commercial projects and currently has a staff of four, and he would like to hire at least one more employee, if not more.

“You can’t just hire anybody because you are taking them into people’s houses,” Connell said. “We want people we can trust who are good workers.”

And, the job doesn’t require getting into college debt to start. Connell said he would hire trustworthy workers who are good problem solvers without any post high-school education at about $15 an hour. Employees with an associate’s degree or some experience would make more, and the most skilled and experienced workers could earn more than $30 an hour.

The work week typically spans 40 hours, and vacation and holiday pay plus bonuses are offered.

The most rewarding part of construction work for Wendell is seeing the smiles and satisfaction on his customers’ faces after a job well done.

“You can kind of see the fruits of your labor,” he said. “You contributed to something that people will enjoy. It’s not just a house, it’s their home. In some cases, it’s their dream home.

A Career That Allows Creativity to Shine

Local contractor Brent Skiles, owner of Skiles Construction, said that after high school he attended college with the idea of earning a four-year degree in graphic design. It didn’t take long for him to realize that sitting behind a desk in a future career wasn’t for him. He grew up on a farm and likes to work with his hands and be outside.

So, he switched gears and started working in the construction industry and eventually decided to pursue an associate’s degree in building construction.

After working for various contractors in Lincoln, Brent moved back closer to family in Phelps and Harlan Counties and opened up his own business 14 years ago. He has found his niche in home remodeling.

“I like all aspects of this industry,” Brent said. “I like working with people and having the chance to be technical and creative at the same time.”

Besides himself, Skiles Construction employs three other full-time workers plus extra help in the summer. His staff includes Boe Barnett, a recent Holdrege graduate who was a recipient of a PCDC high-demand jobs scholarship. Skiles has advertised an opening for an additional employee for one month now and has received only three calls expressing interest.

“What we are missing are people who are actually enthused about the industry,” Brent said.

Skiles said he enjoys being self-employed and would encourage youth to explore construction careers.

“Everybody lives in a house, so it’s pretty good job security,” he said.

Associates Degree Leads To Business Ownership

Brett Buettner, owner of Alpha Heating, Air & Plumbing, said when he attended Southeast Community College in Milford in 2005, he graduated with a class of more than 20 students. Today, those classes struggle to get 10 students.

“I think the kids think if they get an office job they will make a lot of money,” Brett said. “I don’t think they realize the benefits of working in these other trades.”

Buettner worked for another local company right after earning his associate’s degree in heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration. When he was just 22, a local businessman approached him about taking over his heating and air business. Buettner tried to say no, but the owner wouldn’t accept it. Today, Buettner is a young business owner who employs a staff of seven full-time people.

He enjoys being able to save the day by restoring air conditioning to a home and being able to work in a different environment each day.

“You are not in an office eight hours a day,” he said. “You are not inside eight hours a day. You are all over the place for eight hours a day.”

He said he would always be open to hiring and training the right person as he is always swamped with work. And, although experience is a plus, he will hire employees without any post high-school education and then train them in the field.

Promoting Two-Year Degrees at the High School Level

Holdrege High School Industrial Technology Teacher Jeremy Ham said that in past 20 years, parents and educators have focused on four-year colleges as the only acceptable future for high school students.

“As a result, our students view jobs that require less than a four-year education as inferior,” he said. “The shortage of skilled and technical trades is a nation-wide problem, yet we continue to fail at encouraging students to seek these careers as good options.”

Ham, who has taught for 19 years, said plenty of students are still interested in construction classes on the high-school level.

“I think that the best thing we can do for student interest is to provide practical, hands on, job-site experiences,” Ham said. “We as a society need to promote these jobs and training programs as quality options. The skilled and technical workforce can provide great pay and benefits, with little to no student debt.”

And some of those students could go onto become high-school construction teachers since Ham said there is a shortage there as well.

“This shortage has been a problem for more than 20 years, but the problem is getting very large now that the majority of teachers we have are reaching retirement age,” Ham said. “We don't have enough students in the certification programs to keep up.  We had a retirement here in Holdrege last year, and we did not get any applicants to interview.”

Ham said that last year, Nebraska did not have any Career and Technical Education student-teachers, resulting in zero college graduates looking for jobs. This year, seven student teachers will apply for 2018-2019 school-year positions. However, he said those teachers also have skills that make them marketable for higher-paying jobs outside of education.

Ham encourages his students to think outside the box and consider all options.

“If a student is interested in a career that requires a four-year education, they should go,” he said. “If they don't know what they want to do, we should not encourage them to enter a four-year college in hopes that they will figure it out. Two-year schools offer great education at a great price, while students experience life and make decisions toward the future, and often lead to career opportunities along the way.”

Note: This is the third part in a series of stories about high-demand jobs in Phelps County. The first two articles can be found here: Diesel Mechanics and Nursing Careers. Students interested in returning to Phelps County to work in these future careers may be eligible for one of several PCDC/PCCF high-demands scholarships. For more information on those scholarships, CLICK HERE or contact Carley at 308-995-4148.