If the crowds were anything to go by, construction in Oregon and Southwest Washington might not be faced with a shortage of workers for much longer.
Thousands of people turned out last Saturday and Sunday at the Clark County Fairgrounds, just north of Vancouver, Washington, to play on backhoes, cranes, excavators and garbage trucks, at the annual Dozer Day celebration.
The fairgrounds were swarmed with families with small children. Many were preschool age. They were climbing on old tires, sitting in the cabs of heavy machinery, and playing sideshow games.
With the hypersensitivity to safety in construction today, many children rarely get near a beeping truck or excavator. However, this weekend was given over to letting them see and do. Families lined up by the dozen for a two-minute turn on a mini Bobcat or John Deere, or to sit in the lap of a machine operator. Dozer Day is now in its 13th year, and its tenth year being organized by the Nutter Family Foundation, the charitable arm of the heavy civil contractor Nutter Corporation.
Spokesperson Aimee Gebarowski works closely with Renee Nutter and the Nutter family from January each year to bring in sponsors. They either cash or in kind donations, the latter being loaning heavy equipment as well as trailers and tents of the hundreds of volunteers.
She says she was at big construction trade show ConExpo in Las Vegas. "The president of the show said the biggest challenge the industry has right now is getting the pipeline filled for the next generation. Well Dozer Day proves a great opportunity to do that."
People used to think of construction was "an option if you didn't go to college or want to study. But you meet people here who are very smart, they work in the con industry and make great money. It changes the perspective. And they care about their community."
Lineman in waiting
Tanner Klopman, 17, a Washougal High School student, has been coming to the event for years. His favorite memory is of sitting in an excavator. Now he helps organize the event.
When not at school he cleans and maintains equipment for his uncle Eric at Klopman Construction. His dad Steve — Eric's brother — works for the Port of Camas and Washougal, and previously worked for many years for Clark County public works, as an excavator operator then as crew support.
Tanner has his driver's license, but he also can drive any machinery except for bulldozers. And he knows what he wants to do next — he will go to lineman school in Meridian, Idaho.
"Long term I want to work for the PUD or Bonneville Power. I've been researching the school for the last year. A lot of people are retiring and a lot of jobs are opening up."
Kyle Trent, whose job is to move machinery around for Nutter, was helping fair goers try out a mini excavator. The brands were Bobcat and John Deere. The controls were fairly simple — curling the bucket towards yourself, and moving the arm in and out, and up and down. "It's a lot like a video game controller," he said.
Tony Spezza who owns and operates AAA Heating and Cooling on Grand Avenue in Portland, was in line for a bouncy castle with two of his sons Dominic and Jacob, aged around 6 and 4.
His grandfather started the business in 1961 and his father ran it before Tony. It now had 25 people. It deals 70 percent with residential customers — furnace and AC replacement and repair — and 30 percent with light commercial clients.
"We're here because of him," he says nodding toward Jacob, the smaller boy.
"He loves bulldozers and excavators. You can take him to a construction site and he'll just watch them. His grandfather (Tony's wife's father) works in rebar in construction and has taken the boy on a few sites.
"My hope for the kids is they're happy, whether it's construction, HVAC or whatever. I like heating and cooling, it's always put a roof over my head and kept me happy and safe."
Dominic said he wants to be an inventor, Jacob a railroad worker.
"I hope they'll do what want to do."
Cranes and trains
Uriah Chipman was there with his two sons, watching them play on some giant tractor tires.
"They got to go in the seat of a Campbell (crane), they love the equipment. This is how we keep our trade going, this is how we get them interested in wanting to go into construction."
Chipman works for Local 701, the International Union of Operating Engineers. It is for people working with cranes and heavy equipment. His members work on tower cranes, excavators and even have a contract with the Port of Portland's navigation department for dredging on the Columbia River.
"My job is to protect our work, make sure our workers get paid and are safe," he said. The union operates a local hiring hall, where people can come and get a job for a few months or possibly for life.
Chipman was greeting old friends by name and shooting the breeze.
"Getting them here, in the seat of something, it sparks interest. Some like it, some don't. When I was 14 I got put in the seat of a big excavator and I was absolutely fascinated by it, and have been ever since."
He also goes to high schools, colleges and trade fairs and presents to students about getting into construction – and the union.
"The union crane operators, they're an elite group of people. Each crane has an oiler, or two, and people watching it all around to be safe. On non-unions sites sometimes you can have issues where they're not manned properly. When you start running work and you don't have enough people on the ground, that's when accidents happen. We make sure everyone has a fair work day and is safe and goes home."
"I wish I could have got in the union at 18. I got an associates degree in diesel technology, but thinking back I'd rather have gone into an apprenticeship. I would have got paid to do my job. Also, the most knowledge I've every retained has been in the field on the job, in the mud and rain, not on a computer."
Standing near another young dad who had a diaper bag, Nathan Ofstad told the Business Tribune he was compelled to come from Oregon City.
"I'm here because of my son who's turning three in July," Ofstad said. "He really likes bulldozers and cranes, and watching those (TV) shows."
He works as a mobile bottling tech at Signature Mobile Bottlers, who travel to wineries bottling wine. They go from California to Washington, although his turf is the Willamette Valley up to Woodinville.
Ofstad was an airline pilot with U.S. Air but was laid off in 2008. "They cut from the bottom. I was looking for temporary work and my friend was doing bottling. I joined for the summer and it turned into a full time job. It takes care of us."
"I hope for a job he does whatever makes him happy. Right now he likes construction. It sounds like there is a shortage of workers, so this event seems like a good idea to get them excited when they're young. Hopefully it turns into some jobs later in life."
FOR A GOOD CAUSE
The weekend takes some organizing. They needed to fill 600 volunteer shifts. Around half the volunteers come from other non profits. The Nutter foundation disburses grants in June. This year it will give out over $100,000, and claims it will have given away $1,000,000 in 13 years.
Certain volunteers — for example the Boy Scouts and Hudson Bay Basketball Team — get paid. A person gets $25 for one shift, $55 for two shifts and $150 for three shifts, money the Nutter Foundation pays out in grants for use but those groups, not the individuals themselves. For example, the money can be spent on camps.
"We really try to teach kids how to give back. It's synchronized helping."
They are careful to give grants to non-profits where the money goes to children's services, not to ones with big budgets and highly paid directors.
How is Dozer Day faring in these boom times for construction?
"It definitely makes it easier if they're not wondering how they are going to keep the lights on," says Gebarowski of the sponsors, who are mostly in the trade. "They have the freedom to help. And a lot of them have been with it since it started, so they're passionate about Dozer Day and proud of being a part of it."
Does she ask for more now?
"Always! Because we're raising money for kids."