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Wilsonville official wins builders association award for supporting, building inspector training program

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - City of Wilsonville building official Dan Carlson wins Education Advocate of the Year award.

On the first day of class, Dan Carlson shows students the first digital camera he used to take pictures of buildings in the late 1990s. The device weighed about five pounds and was accompanied by a floppy disc drive. At the time, this was an upgrade from the Polaroids he snapped previously.

The City of Wilsonville building official reveals the archaic technology to show students in his building inspection technology class at Chemeketa Community College how much the profession has changed in 20 years. And through the college's building inspection program, which he helped revitalize a few years ago, Carlson attempts to prepare students, and the profession generally, for a similar time jump — but this time into the future.

For his work, Carlson was recently named the Oregon Builders Association Education Advocate of the Year.

"I'm very humbled about all of this," Carlson says. "I don't do it for the recognition. To me, I like to see people succeed."

As a Polk County homebuilder in the '90s, Carlson was frequently perturbed by building inspectors' extensive requirements and mandatory tweaks. But he was also fascinated by the profession.

"I also was a little frustrated with having an inspector come out and write me up to change framing that I had just built," he says. 'Why are you doing that? It's fine. It's great.' They would say, 'No Dan, here's what's wrong.' I always wondered why. 'Why is that?'"

While struggling to support his family in Dallas, Oregon in the mid-'90s, he approached a building inspector and asked him how he could nab a similar job. The building inspector told Carlson to sign up for the Chemeketa program, so he could receive training and improve his chances of earning his desired gig. Carlson heeded the advice.

After graduating, Carlson worked his way up to the building official position, which is the manager of the building department, for the City of Corvallis and then garnered the same title in Wilsonville two years ago. Meanwhile, he has served on the advisory board for the Chemeketa program for many years.

Carlson and fellow inspectors analyze buildings and development plans. Among many tasks, they check to see if the foundation is in the proper place, if the steel is set to the right grade, if there's proper support under windows and if the plumbing, insulation and other infrastructure meets code standards.

In 2014, due to the economic downturn and a paucity of building inspector jobs statewide, Chemeketa shuttered the building inspection program. But that same year, the International Code Council revealed a report that sent shockwaves through the profession. It showed that 80 percent of inspectors planned to retire in the subsequent decade and 30 percent planned to retire in the next five years. Meanwhile, Carlson said most people don't think about building inspection as a potential career path and few programs exist across the United States to prepare prospective inspectors.

"When this (the report) hit the streets there was quite a bit of panic from building officials and code officials," Carlson says.

Hoping to stabilize the flow of trained inspectors in the state, Carlson suggested restarting the college program. He spoke to Glen Miller, the director of the CCC Polk Center (an offshoot of the Salem campus in Dallas).

"Some jurisdictions, you can't find people. I went to Glen and said, 'This program could do very well again, could stand on its feet again. The economy is roaring back to life,'" Carlson says. "So Glenn made the pitch to his (boss) and they agreed to give it a test run."

Carlson and Miller worked to rebuild the program with a more modern feel. They brought in technology for simulating inspection review, included certification attainment into financial aid packages, brought in professionals who worked on building code in other cities and countries and taught students how to perform inspections on an iPad or an iPhone. They also changed the program from a day class to a night class so that students could work during the day.

People could theoretically earn a building inspection job without taking the two-year course but Carlson said they're much more prepared and hireable if they do.

"When I go to OBOA (the builders association) and share with my counterparts, 'Hey here's what we're doing about trying to fill these gaps that we all have with people who are qualified, who have the soft skills, the people skills, the technical ability with the codes, the technology skills with doing electronic plan review, inspections on an iPad, those are skills that we're teaching versus somebody just trying to study that code on their own and pass the certification exams and then try to get hired. It (only passing required certifications) doesn't quite cut it," Carlson says.

The first session began in 2016 and seven students graduated in 2018, including five who earned jobs in the field before finishing school. The 2019 and 2020 classes consist of 12 and 15 students respectively. To teach his class, Carlson spent 12 hours every weekend for a year preparing the curriculum. He also spent ample time finding instructors.

"I did everything I could think of, contacting people, people I knew, people I thought would make good instructors, encouraging them. I (agreed to teach) a class myself. We found them and were able to make it a success," he says.

If the ICC's projections hold true, the dozens of graduates the Chemeketa program produces each year might not be enough to meet municipalities' needs, which is why Carlson hopes to grow the program further. The department has created a promotional video and uses social media to try to attract more students.

Carlson fondly reminisces about seeing a former student proudly hand him his business card as an official employee for the City of Silverton.

"He was all excited. It was life-changing for him," Carlson says. "To me that's a big deal. That's really meaningful. That's why I like to do it."

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