Sustainable Building Tech Program Gives Students Options

A degree program in sustainable building technology at Missoula College, Montana aims to give students a range of career options to fill construction jobs involving renewable energy or sustainably sourced materials.

(TNS) — A degree in Missoula College's sustainable building technology program will give students the skills to pursue a wide variety of job options that suit their personal preferences, according to director John Freer.

"This program is an incredible opportunity to prepare for a lifelong career," he said. "And we try to make sure our students know that there is so much more to this than just pounding nails all day. If they have the desire and the aptitude, there is no limit to where they can go, from opportunities in dozens of specialty trades, management or even owning their own company."

And Freer's students agree with him.

The senior class that's about to graduate out of the program on Saturday has spent the last few years building several energy-efficient modular homes from the ground up. They don't do electrical or plumbing work, but they had to work out pretty much everything else about constructing a 1,400-square-foot home.

The homes are now sitting at the college's west campus near Fort Missoula.

"We learned the whole building process from start to finish," explained student Katie Peterson. "It was definitely a learning experience. I started the program without any construction experience and there was a range of different skill levels with everyone."

She started a construction management program at a different school, but she wanted something more hands-on and transferred. Now, she'll head into the construction management industry with an in-depth knowledge of the entire homebuilding process.

Max Wiese said the traditional college route didn't appeal to him after graduating from high school in Missoula.

"I took some shop classes in high school and really enjoyed the hands-on learning," he said. "I didn't think the normal four-year degree was my route so I wanted to learn what the industry was all about."

One thing that appeals to all the students is the robust job market for people with construction skills.

Over 80 percent of construction firms surveyed have had trouble filling both salaried and hourly craft positions, according to the 2020 Construction Outlook Survey by the Associated General Contractors of America.

Many contractors in the survey said a shortage of skilled labor has contributed to a housing shortage and 72 percent anticipate labor shortages to be the biggest hurdle in the next year.

The program also teaches students how to effectively interview for jobs.

Alex Fair, another student who is graduating from the program this year, said he's already received a job offer starting at $23 an hour.

"I think most of the jobs start at about $15 an hour but they bump you up," he said.

Freer said the program offers many certificates and micro credentials in carpentry, green building and other areas so that students can tailor their education to their interests.

The program limits the number of students admitted to keep the class sizes small, according to adjunct faculty member Walt Wilson.

"The tools we use are not without danger, but the small student-to-instructor ratio keeps the students safe while teaching them to perform at an industry level," Wilson said.

Waste is a big problem in the construction industry, Freer noted, so students learn how to reduce their materials costs and also use sustainably sourced wood and other items.

"We're teaching students to not only be efficient in the process of building but also the materials used," he said. "Sustainable materials don't have to be fancy. Where they come from, how they are made, how long they last, and what happens to them at the end of their life is more important."

The homes the students built will be sold in the local market to first-time homebuyers who are able to have a foundation built on their land, Freer said, so the program can recoup its tools and materials costs.

Steve Kinzel is a graduate of the carpentry program and is now the Bonner site manager for local trailer manufacturer Alcom. He said the Missoula College program was comprehensive.

"You learn the trade, yes, but you also take math classes and computer classes and you learn how to give a presentation," he said. "It teaches you discipline and accountability."

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