College-educated interns move toward jobs in the field as skilled trades fall out of public education

A group of new interns started at Bremik Construction this summer, hoping to earn enough experience to gain traction in the industry.

While skilled laborers used to work their way up through apprenticeships in the trades like carpentry to eventually become project superintendents, today's supers are half and half skilled workers and college-educated workers — a shift in the labor pipeline for the construction industry, while there's still a scarcity of blue-collar trainees. PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JULES ROGERS - Bremiks five interns are college students, but might have the opportunity someday to work in the field instead of in the office — a job usually reached by training in skilled trades apprenticeships.

At Bremik, once someone is hired as a full-time project engineer, they get to choose their path at the next opportunity for promotion, taking either the project manager or superintendent path.

That's unique because superintendents are usually out in the field, on-site, and have a background in skilled labor, whereas project managers usually operate out of the main office and have higher education degrees. However, as shop classes drop out of public education, that strict divide isn't workable in the increasingly scarce blue-collar fields. To that end, Bremik is trying a new approach to keep up the worker pipeline within the changing industry.

New intern

Kalie Suellentrop has been with Bremik as an intern since May. She studies engineering at Montana State University, and has one semester to go before finishing her bachelor's degree.

She met Mike Greenslade, vice president, and Bob Trapa, director of construction, at a career fair at Montana State in spring 2016.

"I talked to them and researched the company and all their projects," Suellentrop said. "I really like renovations, redoing buildings and stuff like that. I enjoy that aspect of it, they take care of their employees — I haven't heard any bad things about the company, I was really excited and wanted to work for them."

Suellentrop's dad and a bunch of her uncles are chemical engineers.SUBMITTED: BREMIK CONSTRUTION - Kalie Suellentrop, intern.

"It runs in the family," Suellentrop said. "I know what my dad does and didn't want to go down that route: civil engineering, all-encompassing construction, structural or transportation, there's a lot of variety in what path I could take, which way I could want to go."

For her internship, Suellentrop gets to the jobsite in Hillsboro at 5 a.m.

"We start work, I'm writing RFIs, doing submittals for projects out there, and then walking around the jobsite doing anything my mentor — the project engineer — needs to do," Suellentrop said.

Bremik invites some interns to come back on their next break from school. In construction and engineering, it's common to have two or three internships completed before securing a job after graduation.

This is Suellentrop's second internship — she held one last summer at another firm, too.

"It's hard to get the first internship to get the experience," Suellentrop said. "Having that definitely shows employers that you've done something in a field that relates to your major: this is what you're interested in and you're kind of able to know the industry when you jump in."

Her internship ends in August.

"That (experience) is so valuable, it's one of those things you can't put into words: I'm able to sit on the job site, I'm able to learn from two people who know what they're doing and have been interested in the industry," Suellentrop said. "I sit there and say I'll take all the knowledge, soak it all in and listen. The meetings we have at Bremik, you can sit there and gain knowledge. Knowledge and experience are two things that are most invaluable."

Looking for interns

Spencer Bradley is a project manager with Bremik, and used to be an intern there himself. He graduated from Oregon State University, where he still goes to represent Bremik at job fairs — the same way he first joined the company.

"They had a good presentation at the time, were doing a lot of work at Mount Hood, at the Meadows and Timberline in Government Camp," Bradley said. "That was something interesting compared to other folks that just would say we do this many towers per year. It was something that was more relatable, being someone that goes snowboarding."

He does the front-end interviewing of potential interested interns, starting with sophomores to graduates.SUBMITTED: BREMIK CONSTRUTION - Spencer Bradley, project manager.

"We're looking for quality candidates with various levels of experience, depending on where they are in school," Bradley said. "A lot of times freshmen don't have a lot of practical experience yet. We want to find someone looking to learn and take on a summer internship and get some hands-on, real-life experience with us."

Bremik's outreach predominantly reaches students at engineering colleges in the Pacific Northwest, including Montana and South Dakota and specifically Oregon and Southwest Washington.

"It's important when interviewing to have experience — everyone wants you to have experience," Bradley said. "The more years of internship you have, the better off you are in an interview. Especially when comparing to other people, the difference between one year of an internship and two is a lot of the experience difference we see with new hires and interns. Every summer you can get an internship, the better."

Intern to project manager

During his initial internship, Bradley was placed on a medical office that was just breaking ground. He was exposed to estimating, subcontracting and the bidding processes.

"Then after the initial submittal process, I got to go back to school so I didn't get to see much of the construction happen," Bradley said.

Bradley interned at Bremik in 2007 and graduated in 2009 — not exactly prime time for the construction sector. Back then, Bremik had 10 employees total in the office — now, it has 40.

Four years after being a project engineer, Bradley moved up into his project management role. He said around three to five years is typical for that kind of movement.

Upon graduation, Bradley scored a job at another firm, where he worked for two years as a project engineer before returning to Bremik.

Across general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers, the workforce is spread a little thin all around.

"It makes it more challenging on coordination, making sure you get subcontractors taking on the work who aren't too busy is probably one of the bigger challenges," Bradley said.

But the building boom has also "helped us have more opportunities for internships and project engineers as full-time employees for people to stay after their internships and roll into project managers full-time," Bradley said.

Intern to superintendent

That's also how it was for Brady Webster, project superintendent, who has been at Bremik Construction for three years, counting his internship. He interned during a summer and then a winter break from school.

"I had a couple of different internships before I had an internship at Bremik, both with larger general contractors here in the Northwest," Webster said. "What stood out with Bremik for me was that I was looking for a medium-sized contractors that were builders at heart. I didn't want to just be a construction manager, but wanted to be a true general contractor."

He liked the people and his superintendent — he clicked with the culture.SUBMITTED: BREMIK CONSTRUTION - Brady Webster, project superintendent.

"Seeing my superintendent and his involvement with carpenters and subcontractors' scheduling and all that coordination really made me want to go the superintendent route, which was something I feel was rare in the industry as a college-educated superintendent," Webster said.

Compared to superintendents who came through the carpentry trade, "they definitely have more technical knowledge of the way a building fits, how it goes together, just from having the past experience," Webster said. "Whereas as a college-educated superintendent, I don't know all of that right out of college and I've had to learn more in the field on a day-to-day basis. College education doesn't give you the constructability aspect of how construction works."

But college can be a connector. As a student, Webster connected with Bremik through the AGC student chapter at Oregon State University.

"The AGC student chapter at Oregon State has huge involvement down there, they're really awesome about getting different contractors on campus to do speaker meeting nights that helps present about the company or topic in the construction industry," Webster said. "They had a Q&A with students and interviews the next day with students. That's the best way as a student to get an internship."

By Jules Rogers
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