As trade programs grow nationwide, Carpenters Union Local 106 finds a new home in Altoona

ALTOONA, IA – Driving along I-80, it’s easy to see why Carpenters Union Local 106 chose Altoona as the site of their new, state-of-the-art Training Center.

Located at the intersection of Adventureland Drive and 1st Avenue, the Carpenters Union Training Center is surrounded by a growing community. To the immediate north, there is Interstate 80, a natural marketing opportunity for the organization, where thousands of commuters shuffle to and from the Des Moines Metro each day. To the west, there is Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, a key partner of the organization. Just beyond that is the Outlets of Des Moines, a newly opened retail center constructed by many of the Union’s members. To the south, there is more construction, as crews work on the future site of Altoona’s Civic Service Center. A few blocks west, you can grab a burger at the Sugar Shack, a favorite spot of Union 106 instructors and apprentices. Look to the east, and you’ll see the future: open land, hundreds of acres primed for development, ready for whatever comes next.

From their expansive, high-tech new facility in Altoona, Carpenters Union Local 106 sees opportunity in every direction: acres to grow, students to recruit, communities to build, and construction sites demanding the kind of skilled workers the Union is producing. They’re in the right place for the future.

If you have ever wondered how the future of education will look, you can find it right here, at the Union 106 Training Center. Step inside, and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a simulated building site, an airport hangar-sized warehouse that looks, feels and sounds like a real-life construction zone. This is the next level of hands-on learning. Here, the Union’s apprentices – typically young, college-aged students wearing jeans and reading blueprints on iPads – work alongside experienced instructors, called “Journeymen” or “Journeypeople,” who have been in the field for decades.

The idea is to learn by doing. Amid the steel frames and exposed plywood, apprentices learn lessons about construction that can’t be taught in the classroom. Sparks fly from welding torches. Nails are driven into boards. Tables are crowded with leather toolbelts, hardhats and oversizedlevels. The work is simulated, but the experience couldn’t be more real.

Inside Carpenters Union Training Center

Beyond the simulation room, there is a network of more-traditional classrooms. Here, apprentices gather around floor-to-ceiling touchscreens to learn the math, theory and regulations they will need beyond these walls.

The training center offers a new way for a new generation to learn carpentry, bringing together hands-on experience and classroom teaching for a well-rounded education. It’s advanced, it’s impressive, and it’s also much-needed, as the professionals the Center produces are in greater demand than ever.

Ifyou live in the Des Moines Metro – or, at least, have passed through it – you have probably seen the work of Union 106. Carpenters build everything, from towering skyscrapers to backyard decks. Even the Bavarian huts of the Des Moines Christkindlmarket were constructed by Union 106 members. Today, the Union has more than 1,200 members in the Metro (and counting), with countless alumni outside the region.

For those seeking an alternative to college, trade programs like the Carpenters Union are more attractive than ever. For one thing, joining the apprenticeship requires minimal qualifications. The Union 106 program is open to anyone with a High School diploma or GED. Then there’s the debt (or, for apprentices, the lack of it). As of 2018, the Federal Reserve estimates there is about $1.5 trillion in outstanding student debt – a figure that will likely grow, as college tuition costs continue to rise. Instead of paying massive costs for tuition, room and board, apprentices actually (brace yourself) make money as they learn. As they practice their trade in the classroom, in the simulation zone and at real job sites, these students earn a wage equivalent to at least 60% that of a journey-level professional, while receiving the same benefits as the pros.

It’s education that pays – in the short-term and the long game. Just ask Lance Howard, who graduated from the program in the mid-2000’s.

“I joined the apprenticeship knowing that I would earn good wages, have health insurance, and get started on my retirement savings,” Howard says.

When they complete the program, new carpenters enter a market that’s desperate for their skills. Howard, who was quoted above, is an excellent example. After graduating in the mid-2000’s, he quickly advanced in the construction industry. Today, Howard works as a Superintendent at Neumann Brothers, Inc., where he manages large-scale, multi-million-dollar projects. The demand is high for skilled professionals like Howard, and it’s only expected to reach new heights in the coming years.

Why? Because there just isn’t enough talent to complete the work that needs done.

In 2019, there is a shortage in the mid-skill labor market – the “trade” jobs – and it’s only expected to get worse over the next seven years. The demand for construction-related careers like carpentry is anticipated to grow by 11% through 2026, as the need for jobs outweighs the population of skilled laborers in markets across the United States, including Iowa.

In other words: we don’t have enough trade workers, and we’re going to need more. That’s why the new training center is so critical, for the future of each worker and the economy at large.

With more opportunity in the market – and stories like Howard’s becoming more common – it’s not hard to see why, since 1999 to 2014, national trade-school enrollment nearly doubled: from 9.6 million students to 16 million. Union 106 saw the growth first-hand. As the demand for trade skills increased nationwide, their program drew more interest than ever.

Working in Carpenters Union Training Center

It was a confusing time for the Union. On the one hand, this new demand for their program was exciting. But, with an aging Training Center that would become increasingly crowded and out-of-date, the organization had to find a new home, and they had to find it fast.

In 2015, Carpenters Union Local 106 was searching for the perfect site for their new training center. They didn’t have to look far.

Felicia Hilton, Political Director of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, says the selection came down to three factors: visibility, accessibility and space. As demand for trade skills continued to rise, they needed a place where they could easily serve and recruit from the Des Moines Metro, with ample room for large classes and a state-of-the-art simulation facility.

“We were looking for a good community, an up-and-coming city,” Hilton says. “We found Altoona.”

In 2018, Union 106 opened their new Training Center in Altoona, a 10-minute drive from downtown Des Moines. The new location checks all the boxes. In addition to the 47,000-square-foot facility, there is ample room for parking, outdoor activities and potential future expansions. The Center is visible to millions of drivers along I-80, a major interstate, which means the Union gets plenty of exposure without spending a dime on advertising. Most importantly, the new site is accessible to a large region of potential students and instructors.

“It’s just enough outside of Des Moines, so it’s easy to get to, but close enough that it’s convenient for everyone in the Metro. We’re right by the train station, right off the highway, and near a good number of hotels, so guests have places to stay,” Hilton says.

“It’s a perfect fit.”

American flag hanging in Carpenters Union

Altoona has provided a home for Carpenters Union Local 106 to grow. Now, Hilton says, the organization is giving back: to our community, our families, and even our four-legged friends.

Each month, the Union hosts a “Kids Build,” where families can get hands-on with carpentry through kid-friendly activities, like constructing bird houses and outdoor decorations. The organization also attends career fairs at local schools, where they inspire students to explore the trades. They even plan to give back to the canine members of Altoona. As the Altoona Police Department prepares to move into their new headquarters at the Civic Service Center in spring 2020, the Carpenters Union is constructing walls, barricades and teeter totters for the City’s new k9 training course.

“It’s important to give back,” Hilton says. “That’s always been part of our mission.”

The story of Carpenters Union Local 106 is an outstanding example of the relationships we build between our City and our local businesses… but it’s far from the only story we have to tell. Today, Altoona is growing rapidly. We’re welcoming new businesses and families to our community each day, including Central Iowa’s first and only open-air outlet mall, The Outlets of Des Moines, as well as Bass Pro Shops, Prairie Meadow Racetrack and Casino, and Facebook, which recently announced the construction of their fourth Altoona data center. Stay tuned for more stories from our community, and click here to see what’s happening in the City of Altoona.