Maybe the most important thing Dylan Casey is learning in Portage High School’s Building Trades program is how to avoid mistakes – and what happens if you don’t.

“The detail,” said the Portage High School senior when asked what stands out in building a home. “You really need to make sure every measurement’s right, or else it won’t look right.”

His instructor, Josh Krueger, would have appreciated that answer. A few minutes before Krueger had commenced instructing his nine students in roof work on a chilly Monday afternoon, Krueger said the construction industry lacked “employability skills.” Nobody is expected to know everything at the start of a job, he added, but they need to put in the effort.

“It doesn’t matter who you talk to – plumbers, electricians, framers. In the construction world, they’re all hurting for qualified labor.”

Observers of the construction this week on School Road would see the framework is complete. Last week students worked with crane operators to put up the roof trusses, “a unique experience for them,” Krueger said.

The roof work is part of a push to close the home for the winter. Inside, students will then get the structure ready for those plumbers and electricians that Krueger had mentioned, and beyond that students will finish the carpentry, the trim and casing around the doors and windows, while also installing cabinets and counter-tops.

“A lot of safety,” senior Mason Brown said of what he’s learned in two months. The home is built at the peak of a side-hill, requiring students to manipulate ladders and scaffolding, and to always be aware of their surroundings.

“You can’t just throw a ladder up anywhere,” Krueger said of the landscape. Students in Building Trades learn nonverbal communication. Power tools at times make necessary the use of hand signals, highlighting perhaps the biggest requirement of the construction trade: “To work well with others,” Krueger said.

“Hopefully, they learn the basics of how to build a house,” Krueger said, “but it’s really about the work ethic. It takes a lot from you. You have to keep at it every day.”

Down the road

Casey plans to attend Fox Valley Technical College to study construction. Brown will consider enlisting in the U.S. Air Force, his career path still to be determined. Both students admitted that a big reason they joined the program was simply to work outdoors — yet more answers that likely wouldn’t have surprised Krueger.

“The idea of all nine of these kids going into the construction field, that’s not going to happen,” Krueger said. “But being able to do your own work, maybe in your garage or adding value to your own property without spending a lot of money, that’s really nice.”

Casey said he wanted to be part of the program because he enjoys working with his hands. He recalled watching his dad remodeling his basement and doing other construction projects — up-close examples of construction skills and their value.

“For me, personally, sitting down in the classroom gets boring after three years,” Casey said. “You get out here for two hours and just work on a house.”

Brown joined Building Trades because “all my friends were doing it and it sounded pretty fun,” he said with a laugh. Fast-forward two months, though, and Brown is taking to heart “lots of stuff I didn’t know.”

Casey concluded, “I like the guys I work with.”

‘Important work’

Krueger is a 2005 Portage High graduate, one of John Morstad’s last students before Morstad retired in 2006. Morstad founded Building Trades in Portage more than two decades ago, and that proved to set Krueger on his career path.

Krueger — who spent four years as the Building Trades leader in Antigo before returning home to Portage this year — said his work under Morstad was the only formal training in home-building that he needed. “He made the learning environment positive, but he expected a lot out of you,” Krueger said of Morstad, who taught in Portage for more than 30 years.

“You’re building homes that people will live in. So it’s important work.”

“I want them to know they can do it,” Krueger said of his own approach in teaching. “I want to build their confidence that they can actually figure this out.”

Taking pride

The in-progress construction marks the school district’s third of five homes to be built on School Road. The district revived the program about two years ago after acquiring the land, this following a five-year hiatus for the program.

Now building one home per school year and aiming to keep doing so indefinitely, the district just last month accepted an offer of $274,900 for its second home on School Road. That sale is not yet finalized, Business Manager Margaret Rudolph reported, but the hope is for undisclosed contingencies of the sale to be met before the end of the calendar year.

The homes students build feature three bedrooms, totaling about 1,800 square feet on their main levels plus full basements and garages.

“They’re beautiful homes,” Rudolph said, “and the students are proud of their work. They want to do it right.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter