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Putnam Project In Bennington Offers Free Carpentry Classes For Interested Workers

People gathered to work in a construction project.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Ryan Ahern, standing on right, helps a group of workers with their shed project on site at the Putnam Block project in Bennington. Ahern has been having trouble finding skilled carpenters and is offering free classes to his crew.

Vermont's workforce shortage affects many industries. In construction, companies here are having a hard time finding skilled carpenters.

But in Bennington, a company is offering free classes in advanced carpentry to train the workers they've hired for the $31 million Putnam Block project.
On a recent cold afternoon, instructor Ryan Ahern stood before a dozen crew members who had been hired for entry-level positions.

"You guys ready to get rolling?" Ahern said. "All right ... quick reminders: During our class, tools stay on. Tools stay on during the job. You guys want to be carpenters, wear your tools."

This group has been meeting here on Thursday afternoons to take an advanced carpentry class, to pick up new skills and maybe get a bump in pay as the multi-year Putnam Block project moves forward.

"...A little bit of your time creates a lot of knowledge. Listen, no one can take knowledge from you." — Tim Centrella, Putnam Block crew member

Tim Centrella is 51, and he's switching careers after working as a tattoo artist. He said he's been more than willing to hang around after work once a week to get the training.

"I know a little bit about carpentry. I don't know as much as a lot of the other people," Centrella said. "But this class gives you, you know, a little better step-by-step. They are teaching us how to read blueprints, how to lay out walls. You know, do all that stuff."

The workers who are here have been hired to do jobs like hauling waste out from the basement, or carrying heavy lumber and sheetrock around the worksite. They're not getting paid for the carpentry class time, but Centrella said he's been staying after work and keeping up with the homework to see where it takes him.

"And when they offer it and ... it's free — you know, you don't get paid for it but I mean a little bit of your time creates a lot of knowledge," Centrella said. "Listen, no one can take knowledge from you."

More from VPR — As Bennington's Putnam Block Development Moves Forward, Oldcastle Theatre Finds New Home [July 2, 2019]

Ahern, the class instructor, works for Bread Loaf Corporation — the company that's managing the Putnam Block project.

Even before construction started, Ahern said he realized that he’d have to try something new to make sure he had enough workers to complete the job.

"I was looking to hire roughly 60 people, and the carpenters were not knocking on my door," Ahern said. "I'm talking skilled carpenters, guys that really know their stuff."

A 2018 report by the Vermont Department of Labor found that construction was one of the top occupations that would have trouble filling jobs over the next 10 years.

Ahern said he started the classes with basic safety and tool instruction, and they're now moving now into reading blueprints and being able to lead others on the job site.

"When I started this program I didn't expect all the people to sign up. I figured maybe three or four folks that were really motivated," Ahern said. "Twenty-two people signed up for the class, and they continually have been coming."

"And what I wanted to do was take these guys and bring them through the whole process of putting up a building, in a very short amount of time, in a very clear and concise way," Ahern continued. "It's exciting. It's definitely exciting."

Person looks at blueprints at a construction zone.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Michael Ritter goes over blueprints during a skilled carpentry class.

Michael Ritter said he's been doing construction for about 10 years, but the classes have exposed him to a bunch of new skills he never picked up working other jobs. He said what he's learning here will help him out long after the Putnam project is done.

"You learn how to do headers, windows; learn how to do doors. You learn how to do flooring. And I could leave here and potentially, you know, work for another place or even start my own business," Ritter said. "You could do anything. ... You learn how to roof, you can build walls — you can build a whole house."

The classes are focused around building a shed, which uses many of the same wall, roof and flooring skills that will be used once construction starts in the Putnam Block. After the shed is done in class, the workers will auction it off and use the money to help them buy new tools for themselves.

Developers say the first phase of the Putnam Block project will be completed sometime this fall. Work on the second phase, which includes new space for Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, is scheduled to start in 2021.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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