New co-op will offer online and hands-on training for apprentices in the tile trades

COURTESY: HAWTHORNE TILE - A team from Hawthorne Tile that included Lara Walker, from left, Dirk Sullivan and Shon Parker took the lead on forming a tile contractors co-op to support an open-shop apprenticeship training program.Local tile contractors looking to attract and train the next generation of skilled workers have taken matters into their own hands.

The contractors, all part of the Oregon-Columbia Tile Trades Training Trust, have created a co-op that will support an open-shop apprenticeship program set to welcome its first group of students in October.

The program isn't a start-from-scratch effort. The tile trades group previously ran its open-shop apprenticeship program through the Northwest College of Construction. The school, located in Portland, provided classroom and hands-on training for a three-year program to help apprentices reach journeyman status in the tile trades.

Like most construction trades, the tile trades saw a loss of workers during the recession. The college had supported the apprentice program through the period, thinking the tile trades sector would spring back once the economy improved. But by the end of June of last year, it became apparent that rebound wasn't going to happen.

"There weren't any level-100 students that applied ... and there weren't any encouraging prospects for continued enrollment," Bob Strader, president of the construction college, said.

Strader and leaders of the tile trades group agreed to end the college's affiliation with the open-shop apprenticeship program at the beginning of this year. That left the tile contractors in a tough spot.

Most publicly funded projects come with goals for the number of apprentices involved in state-approved programs that a company must have working on a project site. Without a program to train their own apprentices, contractors eventually would either have to hire apprentices being trained in a union program or miss out on opportunities to work on public projects.

Neither option appealed to local open-shop tile contractors. That's when Dirk Sullivan and his staff at Hawthorne Tile stepped forward to help. The company's project manager, Shon Parker, took the lead on creating the co-op program to offer educational training, with an emphasis on the apprenticeship aspect.

While having a pool of open-shop apprentices for public projects is an incentive for co-op members, the educational training is even more important as the industry prepares to lose experienced workers to retirement.

"A lot of folks learned from a guy who learned from a guy," Parker said.

Apprentices and others enrolled in the state-approved co-op program, which now is being administered by the Pacific Northwest chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, will access online courses through the National Tile Contractors Association. Those classes will form the basis of the program and will be supplemented by hands-on training that will be held in space donated by The Cronin Co., Parker said. Apprentices also will receive monthly in-person training from manufacturer reps, who will provide information about best-practices for installation of general and specific materials.

Co-op members are also getting creative when it comes to spreading the word about the opportunities offered by careers in tile setting as well as the apprenticeship program. Parker and others are visiting job fairs, visiting high schools and talking with trade groups like Oregon Tradeswomen. As of July, 17 people, including several women, had signed up for the program.

The program is free for student apprentices. The cost of the program is being covered by monthly per-student fees being paid by co-op members.

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