FAIRFIELD, Maine — Amber Oberle of Hallowell is a single mom of two kids who was working in two day care centers to help make ends meet.
But the 36-year-old, who likes to make things, had different dreams for her future, and when she learned about an innovative program in sustainable construction at the Kennebec Valley Community College, she enrolled. Now, Oberle is learning how to use a chisel and other tools to build traditional post-and-beam structures, and is discovering that she loves it.
“This just seemed interesting to me. This seemed unusual,” she said while paring down a tenon joint to fit inside a mortise hole. “It just seemed like a unique program, and more artistic.”
Oberle, a quiet woman whose small hands seemed delicate next to the heavy, squared-off timbers she was working on, doesn’t look like most beginning construction workers. Nationally, women make up only 9 percent of construction workers, and they are much more likely to do more typical stick-built construction than timber-frame construction. In stick-built, modern construction, builders use smaller pieces of wood and build as they go, using nails to join them together.
But that doesn’t happen with traditional timber frame construction, where timbers are joined with “mortise and tenon” joints and hardwood pegs, but not with nails or other hardware. This kind of construction is precise and labor-intensive, but has a special appeal and lasts a long time.
Officials at Kennebec Valley Community College are happy that nearly one-third of the students in the sustainable construction program, which began last fall, are women. That’s one way the program stands out, but certainly not the only way, according to program manager Kurt Klappenbach.
“We’re the only community college in all of New England, and I suspect the only one east of the Mississippi, that has a program that emphasizes timber-framed carpentry and sustainable construction techniques,” he said. “It’s the only program of its kind — and we’re very proud of it.”
How did the community college, which boasts 2,500 full- and part-time students, come to have Oberle and other students building timber-frame structures inside a cavernous converted field house at the school’s Harold Alfond Campus? It actually has a lot to do with the Great Recession, Klappenbach said. In 2009, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed, the U.S. Department of Labor provided funding to give community colleges the capacity to improve their ability to deliver career-training programs that can be completed in two years or less that will prepare students for employment in high-wage, high-skill occupations like construction.
A lot of the students at the college are economically disadvantaged, Klappenbach said, and their average age is 30. The vast majority of them are first-generation college students, and learning a high-wage trade is very desirable.
“The goal of community college is to provide people with the flexibility to get a better job and to improve their life,” Klappenbach said.
The decision to focus on sustainable and timber-frame construction came when a feasibility study done five years ago showed that they were the only bright spots in Maine building trades at the time, Klappenbach said. Over the program’s two years, students will learn basic construction skills, sustainable forestry and other aspects of sustainable construction.
“All that is covered, but the heart of the program is timber-frame or post-and-beam joinery,” he said. “For these students, their skills are in demand.”
On a recent morning, the old field house was transformed into a construction site, as students worked on fitting massive square timbers together. They used their chisels to shape tenons.
Student Vinnie Birtwell, 19, of Wayne, is hoping his skills will be in demand. He did a lot of carpentry when he was a student at Maranacook High School in Readfield, but there is something about timber-frame construction that caught his attention. He’d like to work with a timber-frame company for a while to get more experience and then ultimately start his own business.
“I just like the art, and the strength of how these buildings last,” he said. “This is going to teach me the main things, and then after school I’d like to learn more by doing it.”
Cary Wright, 43, of Leeds, is another nontraditional student who signed up because she has always loved timber-frame construction but never had the money or time to learn how to do it herself.
“This program allowed it,” she said.
But the licensed electrician, who currently works at a Lowe’s Home Improvement, has other motives, too.
“At 43, I believe in use it or lose it,” Wright said. “This is challenging mentally and physically, and I prefer learning like this. And I’m a mom. That’s another reason I liked going back to school — to be a role model to them.”
Klappenbach and timber frame instructor Sandor Nagy of Albion know that not every beginning carpenter opts to go to school to learn the trade, preferring to learn on the job instead. But there are upsides to learning in a classroom setting, according to Nagy.
“It allows them to make lots of mistakes and clear up a lot of quirks,” he said. “And I think they become more intelligent workers. No matter where they go, they’ll be very competent workers, period.”
Student Rob Grygiel, 30, of Portland, said that the skills he has learned have made his 90-minute commute to school well worth it so far. He works as a bartender now and wants to have a different career. Timber-frame construction qualifies.
“This is something I can see myself doing for the rest of my life,” he said.