Tulalip Tribes program trains American Indians for construction trades

TULALIP — Billy Janis had worked in masonry and roofing, then went through a period of unemployment.

When his sister told him about a construction training program on the Tulalip Reservation, Janis, 31, of Bothell, jumped at the chance. Janis is Lakota, part of the Sioux confederation, and the program is open to members of any American Indian tribe.

Now, after just a couple of months of classes, Janis is optimistic about his future. He wants to eventually run a construction business.

“I feel alive again,” he said.

Stories such as Janis’, and others more dramatic, are commonplace among people who’ve gone through the construction classes in the Native American Career and Technical Education Program.

Many students find jobs in the field afterward, staff members said.

“I love this program, it just does wonders,” said Wendy Thompson, who started in the program as a student and now is the office manager.

The classes are in an old Boeing manufacturing building across Quil Ceda Boulevard from Seattle Premium Outlets.

Many of the students have no experience at the start, instructor Mark Newland said.

They learn the basics of construction, working together to build a small house literally from the ground up.

“They learn how to handle tools,” including all the safety precautions, he said.

After building the house, they take it down.

“Then they learn demo,” Newland said with a smile, using the abbreviated term for demolition.

Students also learn construction terminology and blueprint reading and drawing; how to lay out and plan concrete footings and wooden structures; how to mix and use concrete; and how to put together different parts of a building, such as framing, windows, stairs, trusses and more. Each student also designs and completes a personal project, such as a bookshelf or entertainment center.

Wade Sheldon, 26, of Tulalip, was working at a gas station when he heard about the program. He was looking for something more satisfying, with better pay, he said.

In the class, he enjoys framing — putting up the wooden skeleton of a house.

“I like watching it go up,” he said.

The construction program is one of three under the umbrella of the Native American Career and Technical Education Program, director Maureen Hoban said. The others are in hospitality, such as event planning, and tribal business management.

The programs are funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, set aside specifically for American Indians. This year’s total is $493,000, she said. The program employs instructors from local colleges, such as Newland, who is on the faculty of Edmonds Community College.

Students receive several types of certification, including from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and to be a flagger at construction sites.

Upon completing the course, Newland finds public works projects for students on the reservation.

For example, students built a storage unit in a maintenance building at Quil Ceda Village, a ticket booth at the Tulalip Amphitheatre and an ice house at the Tulalip marina.

Those seeking more advanced skills can return for classes in plumbing, wiring and welding.

Students in the welding classes use scrap metal to make sculptures that appear remarkably accomplished. A large orca sculpture is on display in the council chambers at the tribal administration building, instructor Dave Taylor said. A buffalo face, with hundreds of tiny, black metal ringlets forming the fur, hung for a time in the Tulalip casino.

Other items include a 5-foot orca made from a file cabinet, and smaller fish, snakes and other animals.

By learning to use welding to make art, the students can transfer that skill to many jobs on the market, such as auto body work, “because they know how to bend metal,” Taylor said.

Some students who come through the construction program are what Newland calls “just-can’t-miss prospects,” while others have varying degrees of talent. Some drop out.

Still, “we can take everyone here and go out and build a house,” he said.

Thompson, 50, said many who come through the program have had hard lives, and in addition to being the organizer, she’s also a chauffeur and a counselor of sorts. Her nicknames include Dr. Wendy and Mom.

Thompson said she hears all the time from students who’ve gone out and found jobs in the field. She heard recently from a man who dropped out of the class because of personal problems, then returned to finish. Now he’s working on a multimillion-dollar project on the East Coast.

Having lost three sons of her own to suicide, Thompson said, hearing of someone’s success is very important to her.

She put her hand over her heart.

“It makes me feel good in here,” she said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

More info

American Indians of any tribe can apply for the construction program offered on the Tulalip Reservation. For more information about the Native American Career and Technical Education Program at Tulalip, call 360-716-4759.

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