Billy Liptrot is making the transition from prison to life on the outside just as one of the nation’s hottest economic streaks has imploded in the face of a global pandemic. But the 38-year-old husband and father is optimistic as he undertakes training for what he hopes will lead to a career as a carpenter in the home-building industry.
Although the unemployment rate keeps shooting up across the state and country, home builders say the longtime shortage of skilled workers coupled with years of “under building” means that people such as Liptrot have reason to be hopeful.
“The industry as a whole is prepared to undertake much more aggressive recruitment efforts,” Robert Dietz, the chief economist with the National Association of Home Builders, said in a recent webinar.
Dietz expects the industry to focus on hiring despite the significant drops in spending and in single-family home starts expected this year. He estimated that the reduced pace of home building over the last decade or so has left the country short about 1 million homes.
“If we’re correct that housing is under-built, to the extent that we do get a recovery we do think it’s going to be led by housing,” Dietz said.
In an interview with The Denver Post, Dietz said the industry nationwide was short 200,000 to 400,000 workers in any given month before the coronavirus outbreak halted a lot of work.
The home-building industry has desperately needed an infusion of new workers, said Justin Johannes, vice president of construction for Taylor Morrison.
“During the last downturn, most of the people just went away. The industry has always been based on father teaching son teaching son,” Johannes said. “The last downturn almost wiped out a generation, so there was nobody teaching people.”
Johannes sees the home-building academy as a gateway to the industry for people who’ve lost their jobs or want to change careers and to fill the holes left as more of the skilled laborers retire. He said the academy offers classes for people just starting out or who want to sharpen their skills. Johannes frequently talks to students at the academy and participates in panels to help them prepare for job interviews.
“People might hire them as day laborers and work them up to apprentices and then journeymen,” he said.
Construction has continued as other businesses have had to close their doors or curtail activity to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But the industry hasn’t gone unscathed. Nearly 7,000 jobless claims were filed by those in construction over five weeks ending April 4, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment.
However, Johannes said the outlook is different this time. In the last two downturns, home builders were among the first to let workers go.
“This time, everyone is kind of digging in their heels and thinking we can ride this out until this COVID-19 thing passes and we’ll see how the market rebounds,” he said.
Liptrot is looking to the construction industry to help him lay a new foundation for his life.
“I’ve done general labor quite a bit. I’m the guy who goes and keeps the site cleaned up, picks up trash, makes sure there’s no fire hazards,” he said. “I always had an admiration and respect for the guys that are walking around in their hard hats and their boots and they have their lunch in a cooler. Those are the tradesmen and they know stuff and have skills.”
After completing the construction skills boot camp at the home-building academy, participants will get an OSHA certificate for safety training.
“Once I’m finished here, I’d like to get into an apprenticeship as a carpenter and go from there,” Liptrot said.
People who apply for the construction boot camp have a variety of backgrounds and experience, said Brian Dare, the academy’s recruiter. Some, such as Liptrot, are looking for a new start after leaving prison. Others want a better job and pay or a new career.
“We do have plenty of career shifters. They may have been very successful and made a lot of money in other fields but just want something that seems more meaningful and more satisfying,” Dare said. “Putting up a structure is just a very human, satisfying thing to do.
“But we also help a lot of people out of poverty and different situations, out of paycheck-to-paycheck situations, to where they can find a really great career and decent wages because of the training and career help we provide,” Dare added.
The academy offers a youth apprenticeship program that works with area high schools. But Dare said the bulk of the training is for adults, generally between 25 and 45.
“It’s folks like Billy who are saying, ‘Hey, I want a real career. I want to make some decent money. I want to do something that’s meaningful and satisfying,’” Dare said. “Sometimes it’s in your 30s or 40s before you realize what you were doing was not satisfying.”
The academy was started in 2017 and was primarily supported by Oakwood Homes. Another partner is the University of Denver-Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management. Tuition is free for those seeking a job or promotion in the construction industry
There are charges for electrical and construction management classes.
Like most things, COVID-19 has affected how the academy does business. Construction work across the state continues, but the home-building academy has had to postpone the hands-on training offered at its site in north Denver. The program normally takes four weeks in the accelerated form or eight weeks going two nights a week.
“It’s heavy hands-on training but we live in an environment right now where we can’t do that. so we’ve tightened up a little bit and made it a three-week program,” Dare said. “They get the same content and instruction they would normally get. It’s just lacking the hands-on element.”
People going through the online boot camp will be invited back when the academy can open its doors again, Dare said. They’ll have opportunities to network, get help with their resumes and preparation for interviews as well a chance to attend career fairs.
Most of the 60 people who applied for the current boot camp decided to go ahead even without being able to put on a hard hat and goggles and work on projects in the academy’s training lab.
Liptrot said once he was out of prison, he was ready for the kind of direct learning the academy typically provides.
“You’ve got to understand, I’ve been in a closed environment for the last couple years. I got home and I’m ready to shoot for the stars, go here, go there. Then you’ve got everyone telling you that you need to stay at home,” Liptrot said.
He now sees the time at home as an unexpected benefit. He said he’s taking in a lot of information during the online sessions, doing a lot of homework. And he’s learning from classmates who’ve been in the building industry.
“I’ve been able to focus on the things that are important. What that is, is my family and my future,” Liptrot said. “I’ve got my wife rooting for me. Heck, my parole officer, my kids. This is something that’s bigger than me.”