Craig High School senior Chance Neumueller snapped a piece of wood-grain flooring into place in a corner closet with obtuse angles that gave it the shape of a baseball home plate.
Neumueller patted his split-leather tool apron, searching for his carpenter’s square. He had left the square somewhere in the 1,780-square-foot house on Cumberland Drive that he and 22 other Janesville School District high school students have spent the school year building.
Neumueller had just walked himself through cutting a piece of flooring to fit an odd angle.
Now he was pondering an ancient carpenter’s puzzle: Where did I set down the tool that I now need?
“It’s all learning, every step of the way. And the first thing you learn is it all takes a little more thinking and patience than you think it will,” Neumueller said.
Neumueller and 11 other students made up the afternoon group of Craig and Parker high schools’ advanced construction class, a program that for a full school year drops industrial arts students, mostly seniors, into the middle of a new home build. Several days a week, the students spend half their day working on site, building a new home.
The Janesville School District has run the advanced construction program since the 1990s, earlier on as an annual build for Habitat for Humanity but in more recent years through a partnership with South Central Wisconsin Builders Association.
The builders association sponsors the program, and a different local builder each year opens a new home build to the students.
For the past 15 years, Parker technology education teacher Joe Kruser has run the advanced construction program, which is split into a morning and an afternoon group. Kruser took over the student build class after a year teaching wood shop in the Janesville School District.
Kruser is seldom in his office at Parker. His classroom, for the most part, is the building site. He supervises and instructs students who handle much of the framing and exterior and interior finish work of building a different house every year.
The past few years, as the economy has begun to tip upward, Kruser said he has had no problem getting students signed up for advanced construction.
For local builders, that might be good news.
Now, builders are seeing a growth in demand for new home construction and renovation in a local housing market that’s stretched thin on homes for sale.
Despite demand, many builders are finding themselves hunting for workers. Kruser said the advanced construction program has for years worked as a pipeline for students interested in getting into carpentry and construction trades, but the program now might play a more crucial role in getting new workers in the construction pipeline.
“The local builders we’re consulting with on this program are really calling for more workers right now. So, basically, what we’ve got here now is a workforce development program,” Kruser said.
Kruser said students involved in advanced construction have learned through coursework how to safely handle tools, and they qualify themselves for the student build program by focusing on coursework on construction. After a year building a home, some of the students go on to college, sometimes for construction management. Others funnel into construction trades apprenticeships.
“Some go to college for other things not tied to construction. But if things change for those students, we sometimes see them coming back to Janesville. They get back into the trades they started to learn in this program,” Kruser said.
Neumueller said he has been attending trades job fairs, and he plans after graduating high school to go into an apprenticeship program, either for carpentry or electrical work. He said he hasn’t decided which.
Another student, Valic Gritzmaker, a senior at Craig, has been in the advanced construction class for two years. Gritzmaker remembers getting a plastic “Bob the Builder” tool set as a young boy.
He moved from that to building his first table with his grandpa when he was just 4 years old.
In advanced construction this year, Gritzmaker picked up experience working with plaster on a kitchen island. He found plaster work challenging but fun.
“I got pretty good at it. It’s sort of like painting with mud,” he said.
Gritzmaker said instead of studying construction in college or apprenticing with a local builder, he wants to go straight into business. At 17, he’s trying to launch his own remodeling business—for now, a one man company without a name.
He’s networking for customers through his uncle, a landscaper who he said has a large customer base in Beloit.
“Right now, I’d like to do remodeling and additions. I really like kitchen work, doing backsplashes and that kind of thing. There’s lots of work people want done in remodeling right now,” Gritzmaker said.
Tom Naatz surveyed work going on at the Cumberland Drive house. Naatz, a Janesville-area general contractor who operates Naatz Construction, is building the home the students are working on this year.
Once students finish installing cabinets and woodwork, the house will go on the market.
That ought to be in early April, Naatz said.
He said the Cumberland Drive home will hit the market with a $330,000 price tag. For a home its size and type, that’s about $20,000 less than the going rate, Naatz said. The main cost saver, he said, is that students have provided a big source of labor.
Naatz said Wisconsin school districts have had few lasting student build programs like Janesville’s in part because most districts are unable or uninterested in budgeting for a full-time instructor to run the programs.
The Janesville School District pays Kruser’s salary, and the South Central Wisconsin Builders Association funds the program, in part by donating the lot for the home. Builders, subcontractors and local suppliers ante up with donated time, material and time to keep the program running, Naatz said.
In a few years, he said, the program is on pace to be mainly self-funded by the builders association.
The students building the home are mostly unpaid, but as they work on the program, they earn credits and learn the processes that will help them land work later.
Kruser and Naatz said local builders every year pick up a handful of apprentices who are students in the advanced construction program.
Naatz is on a state panel of builders association members. He said others on the panel tell him Janesville’s student build program is the envy of builders around the state.
“What sets it apart and makes it continue to work is the support that everyone continues to give this program. It’s good for the students, the school district and the builders,” Naatz said.
Neumueller said as he was hanging siding on the Cumberland Drive house last fall, he had a thought.
“Every time I drive by this house, even if I’m 50 years old, I’m going to remember putting on that siding,” Neumueller said. “Even if some day someone changes the siding or everything, it doesn’t matter. I’ll always look at it and know that when I was in high school, I built that house.”