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SMC student Shawnee Gunnett already working for Big C

One hundred and 80 high school students attending Southwestern Michigan College’s Saw Dust Day Nov. 3 were exposed to potential employers Big C Lumber, Morton Buildings, Functional Homes in Coloma, Miles Distributors of ceramic tile in South Bend and Dowagiac’s Judd Lumber Co., Michigan’s oldest lumberyard at 158. All extolled skilled trades’ abundant opportunities. Shawnee Gunnett perhaps best personifies current strong demand. Gunnett, from Lawton, already joined Big C, whose truss display overlooked SMC’s small house, which she helped build. “I started where you guys are,” she said. “Now I’m an estimator/designer for roof trusses and I can do walls and floors.” All before graduating from SMC next spring.

“I started in the construction program in high school,” Gunnett said. “I took all of the wood shop, CAD (computer-aided design) and drafting classes. I lost my dad when I was 5 so my mom’s been my role model. She showed me how to be my own independent person. I’m going to continue to work at Big C, study business and maybe some day start my own company.”

As Dallas Austin, a 21-year veteran who oversees Big C’s Dowagiac truss plant since 2011, put it, “Shawnee has a bright future with Big C,” where she works alongside Victoria Knight, another of the women who helped Larry Wilson construct the small house, complete except for some interior work.

Carlyn McClelland, another woman profiled last fall, is teaching St. Joseph ISD students she accompanied to Saw Dust Day.

McClelland and Knight last summer won $9,000 in work-ethic scholarships from Mike Rowe’s foundation.

Big C Lumber, whose President/COO Bill Wallace delivered the keynote address, is part of the $8 billion structural building components industry — roof trusses, floor trusses and wall panels — showcased outside the Jan and A.C. Kairis Building.

Three-fourths of all residential structures built today employ components.

Having a 158-year track record doesn’t guarantee future success, said Dick Judd, whose two watchwords are “adapt and change.”

“Something (Wallace) talked about that’s really important is attitude. We can teach skills. We can’t teach attitude. Keep yourself open to new ideas because your direction in life changes as you go along.”

Judd Lumber’s Tom Burling, 64, a retired residential contractor active for almost 30 years, said, “This area is really hurting for skilled trades such as electrical, plumbing and HVAC. All the subs I used all those years are also retired. There are fewer guys out there. I don’t see a lot of young people coming into the lumberyard to buy materials. Our contractor base is guys 50 and up. The need is there for younger people.”

Functional Homes, 10 years old and with four employees, specializes in barrier-free construction.

Builders and occupational therapists work together to design and build/remodel homes to be barrier-free, functional and handicap accessible, whether it’s widening doorways, wooden or aluminum wheelchair ramps, vertical stair lifts, roll-under sinks, showers instead of tubs and lever handles instead of knobs to grasp.

Nineteen percent of the U.S. population has some disability affecting their lifestyle. Functional Homes reinforces “aging in place” instead of entering a facility.

Morton Buildings was represented by its Three Rivers office.

Post-frame construction relies on an engineered wood-frame building system of large, solid sawn posts or laminated columns.

Morton (Ill.) Buildings, founded in 1903, is as old as Ford and Harley-Davidson. It originally was a mail-order fence company and began selling farm buildings in 1950.

The $400 million company, which builds churches and fire stations as well as barns, became fully owned in May by its 1,700 employees.

Morton operates 106 construction centers in 36 states, eight manufacturing and shipping plants and serves more than 500,000 customers.

Morton’s trio said trades are down a million workers, driving up demand. Unfilled construction jobs are at their highest point since 2007, even after hurricanes. Workers’ average age industrywide is 42.7.

Third-generation Miles Distributors, founded in 1969, serves Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and western Ohio through five showroom and warehouse locations in South Bend, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids and Traverse City.

Tiles have increased in size to 24-inch by 48-inch. Introduced about five years ago was thin, 1/8th-inch porcelain.

Indestructible porcelain tile can made to look like wood.

Tilers prefer their trade because complex installations demand creative artistry.