Colorado nonprofit that offers basic homebuilding skills to try replicating model on national level

David Domagala works in the oil and gas industry, which has lost a lot of jobs during the pandemic and recession. That’s one reason he signed up for training through the nonprofit Colorado Homebuilding Academy earlier this year.

Domagala wants to stay in the energy business, but he was between jobs during the summer and decided to brush up on his construction and mechanical skills in case he needs to switch careers. “I’m very optimistic about the construction industry. I feel it’s a pretty recession-proof type job.”

So far, that’s the case. A labor shortage that existed in the homebuilding sector before the coronavirus crisis is only growing, said Robert Dietz, the chief economist with the National Association of Home Builders.

“In any given month, there’s a shortage of 200,000 to 300,000 workers,” Dietz said.

The ongoing labor shortage and queries from around the country led the Colorado Homebuilding Academy to look into franchising its model. The academy was the first organization to sign an agreement with Franchise For Good, the newly formed nonprofit arm of Franworth. The Michigan-based company works with businesses that want to establish or expand a franchise.

“We’ve thought more about how we can expand nationally because the need across the country hasn’t diminished at all,” said Damon DiFabio, director of the home-building academy.

Other organizations, including one in Alabama, have recently used the academy’s templates for training, DiFabio said.

Pat Hamill, founder and CEO of Denver-based Oakwood Homes and the force behind the academy, talked to people he knew at Franworth about making the program national. About a year ago, Hamill unveiled his goal of opening 20 locations over 15 years and training 1 million people who need jobs or want to change careers.

“It will probably be more than 20 locations, with a variety of sizes appropriate to the local market. We don’t have it all figured out yet, but I think we have it worked out enough that we want to share our story and share our model,” said Amy Schwartz, executive director of BuildStrong Education.

Hamill founded BuildStrong Education, a private foundation that supports schools in and around communities where his company is involved. BuildStrong merged with a nonprofit to form the homebuilding academy and partners with education and industry organizations. BuildStrong Academy was formed to provide hands-on learning for people who want to pursue jobs in the construction and trades industries and is teaming up with Franchise for Good to do that across the country.

Dave Keil, president and chief operating officer for Franworth, said the company created Franchise for Good earlier this year to work with nonprofits.

“One thing I noticed is that there are 1.2 million nonprofits,” said Keil. “No one has ever really applied the tools of franchising to the nonprofit space.”

An agreement with BuildStrong Academy followed after discussions between Keil and Hamill.

“Partnering with Dave Keil and the team at Franchise For Good has propelled and accelerated our vision to expand our nonprofit’s support systems nationwide,” Hamill said in a statement.

The timing is right, Keil said.

“Building is still happening, but there’s a dearth of labor. Yet there’s high unemployment, so that combination is a perfect set-up to go scale something,” Keil added “They’ve proven the model works in Colorado and gets wonderful results, so it’s just prime for scaling up and replicating.”

Dietz with the National Association of Home Builders said he always thought that home building would be one of the industries leading the economic recovery. “What caught us by surprise was how quickly we saw the rebound.”

There were 11,500 more residential construction jobs nationwide in October than in October 2019, according to the association. Dietz said the country is short about 1 million new homes.

The 178,000 construction jobs reported for October by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment was up 3,200 from September. There were 182,200 people working in construction in Colorado in October 2019.

A low inventory of existing homes in the Denver area has real estate analysts predicting that builders might not just surpass 2019 sales, but see their best year ever. Those dynamics have prompted people looking for a change or a more secure job to check out the home-building academy.

Paulmiko Parker sees working as a self-employed contractor to remodel old homes as the ideal job. The Denver woman has been a network engineer for telecommunications companies most of her career, but has always wanted to bring old homes back to life.

After taking courses at the homebuilding academy, Parker has been scouting opportunities in the construction industry and is looking for a mentor.

“It’s something I always wanted to do when I was little. I didn’t pursue the career because when I got pregnant, I thought being a network engineer was a great safe haven of a career for my kids,” Parker said. “Now I am changing my career in mid-life and I enjoy it.”

Director DiFabio said while the average age of students at the academy is 32, it’s common for people in their 40s, 50s and older who are “underemployed” or looking for a change to attend the academy. The tuition for the basic programs is waived for students committed to pursuing construction jobs.

More than 220 people went through the homebuilding academy’s  “boot camp” last year. People can also take basic courses in concrete and electrical construction. The academy partners with the Community College of Aurora on a management program that offers certificates in being a construction superintendent and construction estimating.

The academy works with five area high schools, DiFabio said, concentrating on basic skills in the first semester and taking “a little more intense dive into the trades” in the second semester.

This year, COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes to the curriculum, such as conducting more classes online. But DiFabio said students are still getting hands-on training at the academy’s site in north Denver. The classes are smaller to accommodate social distancing. People’s health is checked and sanitizing is a priority.

And the number of boot camp graduates this year is expected to reach 360. DiFabio said the academy is directly placing 12 to 14 people per month in jobs and figures there might be another two to five people who get jobs but don’t report back.

“We’re trying to help people get jobs,” DiFabio said. “We have a recruiter on the front end, trainers in the middle and a career coach to support people as they graduate.”

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