A local organization has been quietly working to diversify the economy of the islands.
For the past two years, the San Juan County Economic Development Council has been offering free trades training courses to dozens of residents.
“The greatest investment we can make in our community is an investment in our young people’s future. The EDC board and I feel strongly that teaching our workers the skills they need to thrive here is fundamental to ensuring a healthy community — and economy — for decades to come,” said Executive Director Victoria Compton.
The program kicked off in April 2017 with a marine maintenance technology course, offered at the Skagit Valley College’s Anacortes campus. Participants received free tuition, class materials and ferry and shuttle transportation thanks to a state grant. It was such a success that the EDC received additional funding from the governor’s Strategic Reserve Fund; the Washington State Department of Commerce; San Juan County; the Port of Friday Harbor; the Town of Friday Harbor; the San Juan Island Community Foundation and the Orcas Island Community Foundation; Islanders Bank; Heritage Bank; Eastsound Water Users Association; and other organizations, individuals and businesses to offer more robust course offerings in subsequent sessions on Orcas, Lopez and San Juan.
The 2019 program started off with a construction basics course on San Juan Island taught by Mike Murphy of Raven Hill Construction. Students completed scaled-down models of houses, a project that taught essential construction concepts and techniques.
“I found the hands-on aspect of the class to be informative and helped me hone some basic skills I already had. All in all, it was an empowering and positive experience [and] I look forward to the opportunity to take the other classes,” said construction class participant Rosedanie Cadet, who lives on Orcas.
In the spring of 2019, plumbing basics was presented at the Orcas Island High School with Jeff Morris and Brett McFarland instructing and at Friday Harbor High School with Brent Huntington.
“I am impressed with the interest all of the students are showing. Even with their wide range of backgrounds, they all seem to want to learn something new,” said Morris.
Both plumbing classes focused on introducing the in-demand field of plumbing to new and interested high school students and career changers. Each class included hands-on techniques such as soldering and gluing, and the Orcas Island course included the design and construction of a model bathroom that students were able to fully plumb with sink and toilet fixtures. A total of 17 students enrolled for each plumbing course and all expressed high satisfaction with the program.
“We have a cross-section of ages from contractors wanting to learn more to beginners with no experience,” said San Juan student Michael Schoenfeld. “I am learning things every class. … and I now have confidence in doing a lot more plumbing myself.”
Next up was a comprehensive introduction to concepts in heating, ventilation and air conditioning held at the Friday Harbor High School Science Technology Engineering Math Center. The course was taught by Kevin McCullough, owner of San Juan Heating. The 11 students who enrolled were Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning trainees, new to the subject or working in adjacent construction fields.
Paul Henriksen taught a construction basics class in the Lopez Island School shop in collaboration with the Lopez Community Land Trust, which donated materials for the project. The course centered on the construction of an 8-foot by 10-food shed to be used by the land trust.
Staff from Rock Island Communications led a fiber optic course at the Friday Harbor High School STEM Center. It served as a comprehensive introduction to low voltage and fiber optic wiring, covering everything from underground cabling to fiber splicing to home installation.
Following that program was a partnership between the EDC and Skagit Valley College to offer construction welding at the Mount Vernon campus for six weeks from May to June. The class, taught by SVC instructor Victor Case, was at capacity with 11 students – all of whom were from San Juan County. Because no formal welding program or facility exists in the San Juan Islands, students were transported to the campus. The class covered shielded metal arc welding and offered two college credits to those who completed the course.
In the fall of 2019 the EDC, in conjunction with EWUA, ran a water systems operations course on Orcas with 12 students, three of whom have already been hired into the trade. This program lasted six weeks and included units on water quality testing, water system mathematics and field trips to a variety of Orcas water systems.
Wrapping up now is a six-week electrical basics course on San Juan, taught by Huntington, which has 14 students and is covering basic electrical concepts, mathematics, regulations and hands-on wiring projects. Finishing this winter is a tree worker basics class taught on Orcas by Carson Sprenger of Rain Shadow Consulting. It has 17 participants and covers tree health, knots and rigging for tree climbing, chainsaw maintenance and arborist certification.
Coming up for 2020, the EDC will offer advanced plumbing; career fairs on health care and creative professional services; management training geared towards those working in hospitality; and building trades. For more information, visit https://www.sanjuansedc.org/trades/.
“I frequently become verklempt when I think of the career success of the students who have been through our programs,” said Compton. “The EDC staff and I are in awe of the work that they did to achieve that success, and proud to have been a part of it. The work we have done in creating strong trades training programs here would not have been remotely possible without the support of our many partner organizations. … Many organizations and businesses helped us to achieve our dream of creating a trades training program, and we are grateful to them all.”