Pre-apprenticeship program gives potential construction workers a leg up on competition

SEATTLE -- Construction is everywhere in our region. But a problem that many companies are having is finding qualified construction workers.

A program that started about 18 months ago is hoping to give potential construction workers a leg up on the competition. It’s called the Pre-Apprenticeship Construction Education, or PACE, program, and several people said it's changing lives along with the Seattle landscape.

Santos Luera’s life has changed. The former Yakima resident is graduating from the program on Friday.

"I’m on time, I work hard and keep a positive attitude. That will set me up to succeed,” said Luera.

But this wasn't his attitude all of the time. Luera said he was just released from prison in February after serving 12 ½ years. After his release, he was looking for a way to change his life. He said the PACE program was it.

"I've learned that you're going to want it for yourself,” said Luera. “And I wanted it for myself. And ever since then, I`ve been working hard.”

Students in the program range from those who have master's degrees to ex-cons. They are all just looking to jump on a career that pays well and is in high demand.

The PACE program is 11 weeks and is unpaid. People interested need to pass a drug test pass, be at least 18 years old. A GED/high school diploma is preferred but not necessary.  Students will then be selected in a competitive try-out.

For those 11 weeks, students learn the ins-and-outs of the construction trade.

“Every morning it starts out with physical work, and then we go off into construction math, and blueprints. And then I kind of teach the hands-on,” said John Collins, PACE trade instructor.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., took a tour of the facility in Magnuson Park. She said that there needs to be a national commitment to addressing the skills gap.

"Apprenticeships are a key part of that, making sure that people get the training and skills they need,” said DelBene. “The actual skills that employers are looking for."

According to recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there was a 4% jump in construction hires this year, compared to last year.

“We have about 135 percent employment now,” said Lee Newgent, executive secretary of the Washington State Building & Construction Trades. “We have about 35% of our workers coming from other states. But we`re going to need about 30-40% increase over a five-year window.”

Program officials tell students that there will eventually be a construction lull in the market. But they also tell students to not let that stop them from reaching their goals. It’s not stopping Santos.

“Every day I wake up and I’m like, what did I ever do to deserve the opportunities that came in my life, after so much wrong that I’ve done,” he said. “Now I just want to inspire the next generation of people.”