Exploring a career route less taken, with Skilsaws

Girl cutting wood with saw
Erin Greenway, 16, uses a Skilsaw at the Alaska Works Partnership spring break training on March 9, 2022. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

Sixteen-year-old Erin Greenway hunches over a Skilsaw and cuts into a piece of lumber.

Carpentry, she said, is empowering.

“I like to have that power of being able to build my own thing,” she said. “Like, you need to fix your rocking chair? Yeah, I got you.”

She and 17 other students are spending their spring break learning carpentry skills. It’s a program of the Alaska Works Partnership that’s open to high school students age 16 and older. Today, they’re learning how to use a Skilsaw to cut 15, 30 and 45-degree angles. 

Greenway is home-schooled and taught herself some of the basics. But, she said, learning from an instructor takes her skills to a new level. She doesn’t know if she wants to work in construction after high school, but she does have a dream project in mind: an aviary.

“I love animals,” she said. “I’ve already built my own bird cage, but a bird aviary is what I’d like to do.”

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Another student, Tristan Farrenkopf, already knows he wants to become a carpenter. He’s redone the flooring in his family’s house and knows a lot about framing.

“I know more than the average 17-year-old,” he said.

Tristan Farrenkopf, 17, measures a piece of lumber and marks where to cut it. Carpentry measurements are one skill he and other students learn at the Alaska Works Partnership. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

But he’s learning new things at this class — like carpenter math.

Farrenkopf attends Mat-Su Central. He said more students should consider entering the trades, if they don’t want to go to college or join the military. 

Carpentry instructor William Andrew said when he was in high school, the only path to success he knew was through college.

“That’s what every teacher said you had to do: go to college,” he said. “What’s great about this is that it shows these kids that there’s a different route. You don’t have to go to college to be successful. You can go through the trades, have it as a career, and still make a great living.”

If students decide to pursue a career in the trades, the Alaska Works Partnership helps them get there. It’s a nonprofit funded by the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The partnership offers free training for different construction skills, like power tools, electrical wiring and welding. Mark Nusbaum, the partnership’s program coordinator, said the one- to two-week classes give students time to explore their interests.

“I’ve had a couple students come in here and their family came from the electrical background, so they were determined they’re going to become an electrician,” he said. “And then they spent a week introducing themselves to electrical wiring and decided, ‘This is not at all what I had in mind.’ And then they became a pile driver, or a plumber, or an ironworker.”

Along with training, the Alaska Works Partnership connects students with apprenticeship programs.

Nusbaum said most apprenticeship programs pay $20 an hour during the first year. That wage is doubled by the time the apprenticeship ends, typically after four years. With benefits, someone could earn $50 or $60 an hour by the time a college-bound peer earns a four-year degree.

The pandemic put many construction projects on hold. Supply chain disruptions hit lumber especially hard. But, Nusbaum said, the construction industry is ready to catch up — and needs workers to do it.

“Everything’s been on hold, and it’s just been building up and building up, and now it’s ready to just take off,” he said.

The Alaska Works Partnership’s youth classes will continue into the summer for Anchorage School District students. The next Anchorage School District class is on ironwork and welding, in late May.

Students at the Alaska Works Partnership watch an instructor demonstrate how to cut wood at different angles. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

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