EVERETT — From a perch atop a ladder in the Edmonds College Advanced Manufacturing Skills Center, Ellie Fongemie’s occasional bursts of laughter rang out between loud thwacks of her nail gun Monday.
A student in the Edmonds College construction pre-apprenticeship program, Fongemie joked with her classmates as they worked in pairs from either side of the framing for a tiny house-in-progress.
About five weeks ago, Fongemie, 18, had never used a nail gun. Now, she wields it with enough confidence to tease her colleagues as she drives nails into a ceiling joist at just the right angle.
“It’s super important to know how much fun they have during the process,” said Brad Farnum, the program facilitator.
But not so much fun, he added, that it detracts from the quality of their work. Once finished with the tiny home, the class will donate it to the Low Income Housing Institute to be used locally as transitional housing for someone in need. The students will decide which tiny home village it’s installed in.
“We have to look at it like, if it were us, would you want to live in it? If you don’t want to live in it, why would you build it like that?” said Regina Lewis, another student.
This is the second group of students to build a tiny home as their core project for the program, which started in October 2021. Before, pre-apprentices would practice their skills by making Adirondack chairs, picnic tables or garden sheds. But earlier this year, the skills center contracted with LIHI and the pre-apprenticeship nonprofit ANEW to complete three tiny homes by June 2023.
Under the contract, the nonprofits supply materials and a small amount for work stipends to pay the students, and the students commit to the work.
“This allows them to come to Edmonds College, learn, get paid for the tiny home and then also give back to the community,” Farnum said.
The 10-week course is free for students. It offers training in construction, plumbing, tool identification and use, trade-level math, blueprint reading, worksite behavior, resume writing and job interviewing. It also includes visits to work sites and networking with representatives from the trades industry.
“It’s a state-approved pre-apprenticeship course, so at the end they receive a badge, and that allows them to take it to trades and basically show them that they went through a pre-apprenticeship course that gave them basic knowledge … to where they can take that and further their career,” Farnum said.
The idea is to recruit, train and retain more employees for the construction trades to help fill a projected workforce deficit in the coming years, said Larry Cluphf, executive director for the skills center. It’s an idea sparked by a 2019 labor survey by Sound Transit to gauge the needs for significant transportation expansions along the I-5 corridor.
“They found out that there was going to be between 6,000 and 10,000 workers short,” Cluphf said. “Well, up in this area, there wasn’t a lot of apprenticeship programs. … So they brought that problem to the college and (college president) Dr. (Amit) Singh said, ‘Oh, we can do that.’”
The work stipend makes the program more accessible for historically underrepresented groups in the trades, including women and people of color, said Rikki Pierotti, associate director of the skills center. For example, of the current class of nine students, five are women. So far, 25 students have graduated from the program.
“It really is removing that financial barrier to help these students move into living wage jobs and careers,” she said.
The tiny home project adds a rare opportunity for the students to apply what they’re learning in class with a professional-level building they fabricate from start to finish, Farnum said. It simulates a real job site. Students even clock in and out for the work day.
During short breaks on Monday, students raved about their experience to The Daily Herald. Fongemie, the 18-year-old, said she looks forward to waking up for class every morning. She commutes to the Paine Field-based skills center from Camano Island.
“It’s really cool because it helps with the homeless problem and it goes to people that are in need and need shelter and a home,” she said. “And we’re learning from it, too. And we’re getting paid. … All good things come out of it.”
Fongemie has signed up to take the entry test for an apprenticeship with the regional carpenters union. To pass, she’ll have to demonstrate basic skills. The test usually includes timed trials that assess agility, strength and math.
“Basically I learn everything here that will transfer,” she said.
Lewis, her classmate, said she was “hooked” the first day of class. Lewis, 19, signed up for the program because her pastor, an electrician, made the trades sound like an appealing career path.
She chose the Edmonds College program because, unlike some of the other pre-apprenticeships she found, it offered the chance to experience all of the construction trades. She didn’t have to commit to one specialty too soon.
Now, she’s leaning toward a career as an electrician. Or maybe, just maybe, a carpenter, she mused.
“I never pictured myself building a house for someone,” Lewis said. “Now, look at me. I’m almost done.”
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.
Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.
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