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Industrial arts teacher prepares next generation for workforce

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | January 10, 2022 12:00 AM

The sound of hammers hitting nails, intensifying whir of saws chewing through lumber, tape measures snapping back into coils and booted feet thudding against subflooring is probably white noise by now to Brock Anderson who is in his 23rd year teaching industrial arts.

On Jan. 4, Anderson was busy overseeing a class of high school construction students make progress in building a new home at 180 Parkridge Drive in Kalispell.

“We have our open house May 11,” Anderson said.

The construction students are part of the Kalispell Student Built Homes program, which Anderson helped establish at Flathead High School in 2015, with assistance from community partners and professionals in the construction industry. The program has since opened up to include interested students from Glacier High School and Linderman Education Center.

Anderson, who joined the Flathead staff in 2007, said his first teaching job was seventh- and eighth-grade woodshop in Sidney, Montana, but growing up, he didn’t know that would be his ultimate career path.

“I didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do — maybe something with my hands. Growing up, I was always building forts and building stuff and helping out mom and dad and grandpas and grandmas. I’ve always enjoyed building, or constructing, or working on cars,” he said.

He had some exposure to the teaching profession through his father, who taught seventh- and eighth-grade English in Columbia Falls, the town where Anderson was raised, but he still wasn’t certain it was for him until he enrolled in Western Montana College, now known as the University of Montana Western, to compete in wrestling and football.

“Come to find out it’s a teacher’s college,” Anderson said with a smile.

He began to think back to subjects he enjoyed in high school.

“So, I’m like, well, my favorite class in high school was the industrial arts — the woodshop, the welding. I guess I’ll be a shop teacher.”

“It turned out well. I’m very fortunate to enjoy what I do,” he said.

After a year at Sidney, he took a position at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls where he had to go back to school to learn how to teach a computer networking class in addition to woods and pre-construction.

“I’ve done a little bit of everything,” Anderson said. “I’m learning new stuff every day.”

“You gotta be willing to learn because it covers a vast range of the different skilled trades,” he said about being a career and technical education teacher.

After getting married, teaching in other towns, he wanted to move back to the valley to be closer to his parents to help out if needed.

He went on to teach computer-aided design, auto and pre-construction classes and then woods 1-4 at Flathead. Eventually, the timing was right to launch the student-built homes program. The need to replenish a skilled workforce in the valley was evident, so was an interest among construction industry professionals to help out. Students were eager to enroll.

“I was having a lot of students going through the woods program go to college with their friends. It’s not a good fit for them. They come back. They’re asking for jobs. They’re hands-on kids and I really saw a need for this program to give these kids some more skills to enter the skilled labor workforce with some tools in their toolbox per se,” he said.

HAVING THE chance to take a construction class in high school versus on-the-job training allows students to learn, ask questions, make mistakes and fix them without fear of being fired. He said they also get to learn tricks of the trade from professionals who partner with the program.

“We have students at different ranges, you know, in their education, but basically, we’re an applied science class out here,” Anderson said. “We’re teaching them math. We’re teaching them load points. We’re teaching them how to calculate concrete volumes. We’re doing Pythagorean theorem every day,” he said.

Students who complete the construction class receive 360 apprenticeship hours recorded with the Montana Department of Labor. Students also learn all areas of construction starting with finding property lines.

“A lot of kids will get jobs before they’re out of the program. Builders will come to visit,” he said.

It means a lot to Anderson when students get an apprenticeship or find they can earn a comfortable living in the trades. Attending college should not be the only mark of a successful person, he added.

“I’m very frustrated with our society, and some of it on education, that they deem you being successful as a student if you go to college. The vocational areas, apprenticeship program, which these kids are signed up in, are super important. Right now, these kids — if they show up and have a good attitude, and good work ethic — they can climb the ladder pretty fast. We’re having a lot of success with our students coming out of this program going into the different skilled trades. Just a lot of these kids are the hands-on learners.

“We’re missing that niche with these students to give them the opportunity to use their hands,” he said.

OPERATING A high school program like this doesn’t stop when the “for sale” sign goes up.

The work continues in making sure everything is lined up for next year’s student-built home — permits, subcontractors, suppliers, schedules — mowing the lawn in the summer until buyers move in — and completing work under warranty.

“You have to be goal orientated rather than time orientated,” he said.

The biggest challenge he’s faced running the program so far is when schools closed during the pandemic.

“The hardest part was when Covid hit and shut down school,” he said.

Anderson, volunteer instructor Tim McLean and his two daughters, both Flathead students, had to finish the house that year, he said.

The million-dollar question for Anderson is why he continues teaching rather than go into the private sector?

“You know, if we don’t do this for the next generation, who will? I mean someone cared enough about me,” he said, naming off former woodshop and welding teachers in Columbia Falls. “You know, they did this and they could have went into business and gone on their own, but somebody’s got to be here to teach these kids.”

“Sometimes ya gotta look at the big picture,” he added. “Money’s nice but what are we doing to help the community? What are we doing to help the next generation of students and skilled labor workforce?”

TAKING CARE of the community is something Anderson hopes he imparts to students.

“These kids get to meet a lot of neighborhood people. These kids have shoveled sidewalks for people. We help out where we can — just trying to teach these kids you’ve got to give back. Help out where help is needed,” Anderson said.

“I think that’s so important for these kids to grow, to know what it’s like helping somebody out, especially with their skill sets,” he said.

Construction sites have many hazards. Looking out for each other’s safety is also a huge part of working in construction that he hopes translates to everyday life.

If there’s something he hopes to instill as a teacher he said it would be, “No matter what you start — finish it. Whether it be college, or an apprenticeship program, or military — just finish it. If you’re going to invest in yourself, have the foresight to see it through,” he said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 406-758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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