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Upstate leaders are hoping seeds planted now will soon return a bumper crop of new tradesmen ready to take on advanced construction projects.
An innovative construction training program that began more than 18 months ago has seen high-profile successes to date, including helping at least one man, Stephen Hill, go from an area homeless shelter to full-time employment with a general contractor.
A partnership between the Northside Development Group, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System and Spartanburg Community College, you might consider that earlier effort a pilot program aimed at bolstering the job prospects of the city's Northside residents. A program launched this weekend takes that idea and expands it to cover training for anyone in the city or county of Spartanburg.
"Saturday (was) really the kickoff of an effort to scale what was once really a Northside initiative," according to Betsy Sikma, vice president of talent and economic inclusion for the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's taking an idea that's worked well on a smaller level, broadening that and raising prosperity for all of Spartanburg County's residents."
Jason Head, construction manager at Spartanburg Regional, has helped design both the earlier Northside effort and the expanded program now underway.
Head said his construction team directly employs 10-15 people at any given time, with another 60 or so employed by the hospital's maintenance staff. That's before the recent acquisition of the former Mary Black facilities in Spartanburg and Gaffney.
Head said the current pace of construction across the Upstate is exploding.
"There's more going on right now than we've seen in 20 years," Head said. "And that includes the residential construction boom prior to 2006. Now, both commercial and residential building is booming. Everybody with a pickup truck is calling themselves a builder again."
That's led to the tightest Upstate construction labor market in 20 years, Head said. That has left local builders searching high and low for the skilled talent they need to complete jobs.
So Head said the decision was made to style a local training program around National Center for Construction Education and Research standards, which require knowledge and skills testing.
It's a middle-ground solution between an on-the-job apprenticeship and a years-long collegiate-level program.
Students learn how to hang Sheetrock, pour concrete and do a wide range of other jobs, Head said.
After each module in the classroom is completed, the students take what they learned to a real job site to use what they’ve learned in the field.
"The point is that we're going way beyond producing someone who is trainable," Head said. "What we wanted to do was when you finish your training here, you're coming out the other side a qualified framer, Sheetrocker, with a globally recognized certification that you're going to be able to find work above $20 an hour with."
James Young of Spartanburg was among those who attended the training Saturday hoping to advance their careers by learning new skills.
"I just want to recertify my career and start out as a journeyman," Young said. "I have done Sheetrock, painting and some home improvement in the past and want to advance myself with more technology."
Young said he believed with Spartanburg's housing market on the rise more construction workers will be needed.
Spartanburg resident Preston Rivers completed electrical training this summer and is now employed at Spartanburg Regional. He recognizes the value of receiving additional training. He attended the core class offered Saturday.
"It gives us a good understanding of basic principles to grow on," Rivers said. "The training is invaluable and sets a good foundation."
Another member of the training class — Monier Abusaft of Spartanburg — said while his expertise is in law, he also runs a janitorial business. He hopes the training he receives will help him expand the business.
"I am working to get a greater understanding of the industry and where we can fit in," Abusaft said. "I brought some of my guys here to have OHSA training and learn about drywall and HVAC. It's good to have a basic understanding in those fields."
Head said the project was born on the Northside, and groups averaged no more than five students per class.
"But it was so successful," Sikma said. "People were getting hired. You could see they had a model here that was ready to expand if they could get the word out."
Leslie West, director of lifelong learning at Spartanburg Community College, said a partnership with the chamber, OneSpartanburg, and city and regional groups are making that happen.
"The idea is to really create a pipeline for this program," West said. "And so far that's working. We've got 21 enrolled in this current class, and we're hoping that number grows in February when we offer the next round on Tuesday and Thursday nights."
Sikma said everyone enrolled in Saturday's course is receiving scholarship funds pooled from multiple sources as a way to lower the barriers to entry for those who may be unemployed or short on cash.
"In Spartanburg County, we've got a tremendously low economic mobility trajectory for folks who are under the federal poverty line, born into distressed neighborhoods," Sikma said. "We see this kind of unique opportunity to marry those needs and help businesses address their desperate talent needs at the same time."
Staff writer Chris Lavender contributed to this report.