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Boom Times and the Trade School Connection

The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!

Boom times for the CNMI!
Northern Mariana Islands—The Pacific islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota are experiencing an economic resurgence. New development, home improvements, an influx of business investment, an increase in tourism, immigration, and more, are making the CNMI the new hot spot in business opportunity. Taking the lead in creating and profiting from these boom time opportunities are members of the local community, who, unlike their counterparts in other resource-rich lands, have seized control of…. [to be continued….]

A few years from now, we may, in fact, be able to read just such a headline and byline in the local papers. And, when we look back, we might be able to point to July 1, 2008 as a pivotal date in the story. That’s the day that the Marianas Trades Institute will launch on a mission to create skilled tradesmen and business owners in the CNMI.

Teaching saleable skills to local residents is, of course, not a new idea. What IS new this time around are a unique set of market conditions, federalization, increasing minimum wage, and perhaps most importantly to its success, the team of people behind the idea. It’s the right idea at just the right time. I had a chance to sit with team coordinator, Tony Pellegrino, and ask a few questions.

So why a Trade School?

Tony: Let me ask you a question. How would you like to set your own salary and income? How would you like to get away from working at minimum wage? How would you like to be an employer, and not an employee?

Whatever the economy, there’s a need for skilled tradesmen and women. Even now, there’s a need for qualified trades people. I’d like to see people move away from the minimum wage mentality. I’d like to see us improve the local labor pool. Everyone knows that things are changing here in the CNMI. Right now, many of the trades are filled by non-resident workers. But, this is work that we, as local residents have to do. If all the non-residents return to their homelands, we’ll be left in a dire situation.

I was watching a show on TLC. Six guys bought a house, stripped it, remodeled it, sold it, and made a good profit. Six guys! And all they used were their hand tools. You don’t need 30-40 people working on a house. Five or six guys with the right skills can do the same job in less time. With the right training, we can upgrade the quality of the workmanship here on Saipan, train people on the right tools, give them the latest technology to make money easier and faster.

Can I really make money as a carpenter, plumber or electrician?

Tony: The trades industry is a very lucrative industry. Most people don’t realize that. We think it’s just manual labor with low wages. It’s not. If you get a good, motivated person, they can turn over a good buck. Here on Saipan, all you need is a pickup truck and your tools. That truck over there [points to a beat-up pickup] could be making someone $30,000 a year. You go out, knock on doors and offer your services. People always need things fixed or built. And, once you get what’s called a “journeyman’s license” to practice your trade, you can work here, on Guam, Hawaii or the U.S. mainland at whatever pay scale the market can afford. [If you want to see what carpenters and other professions earn across the US, check out]

Why should I go to a trade school to learn to be a plumber, or a carpenter or an electrician? Can’t my uncle, the carpenter, teach me what I need to know?

Tony: You don’t have to go to school to learn a trade. However, most professional tradesmen focus on a particular specialty. Your uncle might be a “rough carpenter” [doing preliminary, large scale framing, formwork or roofing], so if you work with him, you may never get to learn “joisting” [putting in floor joists], “finishing” [cabinets, furniture, fine woodwork], or “trimming” [door and window casings, mantels, ornamental work]. So, if you apprentice yourself with your uncle, it might take you 5 -10 years to learn all the different aspects of the trade. However, when you go to a trade school, you can
shorten the length of time considerably. You get trained using the latest tools, you analyze all the different aspects of the profession, and eventually, you can demand a higher salary.

What trade skills will you be teaching at MTI?

Tony: Right now, we’ll be starting with four: Electrical Tradesman, Painting Tradesman, Carpentry Tradesman and Plumber. As we grow, we’ll increase the number of courses.

Who are some of your instructors? Did you have to pull them in from off island?

Tony: No, they’re all right here on Saipan. You see, we’ve got the talent and the expertise right here, my friend. I didn’t pull them from off island, I pulled them from out of retirement! George Sablan, for example, is the executive director of the school. He has over 20 years of experience in carpentry. Frank Flores is a certified journeyman. We’ve got nine instructors so far.

Who else is involved or supporting the school and its mission?

Tony: We’ve got the cooperation of the U.S. Workforce Investment Agency (Edith Guerrero), the Department of Labor (Cinta Kaipat). We’re working with the food stamp program to find potential students, and we’ve applied to SHEFA (Saipan Higher Education Financial Assistance) program for scholarships to help our students meet their tuition expenses.

Say I sign up to the trade school, start my classes in July. When can I start making money?

Tony: It’s not an overnight process, but the best thing about the program is that you first become an apprentice, working alongside someone who is in the trade. So you earn while you learn. You become a paid apprentice—an assistant—while you go to school, and as you develop the skills to become licensed.

Classes are held two days a week for 2½ hours each day. So that’s five hours each week.

The Core Curriculum is basically a 72.5 hour course. By attending class 5 hours per week it will take 14.5 weeks or about 3.5 months.

So, let’s take a look at the painting program as an example. The Painting Program has four levels. Level One is 152.5 hours (includes 72.5 hours of Core) and will take about 30.5 weeks to complete. Level Two is 145 hours and will take 29 weeks. Level three is 152.5 hours and will take about 30 weeks. Level four is 152.5 hours and will take about 30 weeks.

The Total Time Required for entire course, therefore, is 602.5 hours (120.5 weeks) or about 30 months. That’s the time required until you can take the test to qualify as a journeyman. However, you’ll be working all that time earning a salary.

On average, it typically takes from 2-2 ½ years to be fully certified as a journeyman, and, as we add more classes, instructors and courses, that could even be shorter.

And once I finish the class time, and put in the necessary apprenticeship time, what’s next? Do you actually provide me my journeyman license?

Tony: Once you complete the courses and training, there’s both a written and a practical test. The certifying agency is the Guam Contractor’s Association. The US mainland parent organization is the National Center for Construction and Education Research. They are the ones who send you your card and your wall certificate.

So what do I need to get started?

Tony: The first requirement is that you have a job. If you don’t have a job, then the first thing we do is help you find one. Even if it’s not one in your trade, we want you to have steady employment. Why? We expect you to pay for your tuition, and we want to develop a work ethic and encourage you to invest in yourself.

[No prior qualifications are required to enroll such as high school diploma or age. The main requisite is a strong desire to learn a skilled trade. Students will pay a modest tuition and book fee for each segment of the training.]

Does the school place me once I’ve finished the training?

Tony: We will let businesses across the CNMI and Guam know who our students are from the moment they enroll. Let me tell you what Bert, the director of the school in Guam that we’re modeling, told me. He has a student there, a 31-year old man, with six children, who couldn’t get a job. Bert got him a job making $11/hour plus a company car within 2-3 months. Bert’s told me he’s constantly getting calls from contractors asking for students to apprentice. “I can’t supply enough students, Tony!” he’s told me.

[When students are ready to graduate, the institute will encourage them to form their own companies as independent contractors. By doing this they will be owners of their own companies able to service the community as skilled and respected tradesmen. Or they may prefer to work for a construction company as skilled tradespersons.]

Any final words?

Tony: The people who say they don’t see opportunity here on Saipan are just not looking. Do you know that housing complex behind the Garapan Elementary School? Do you realize the gold mine that’s there!? That is prime property. The location is prime. There are dozens of homes there –all stripped clean—that nobody is looking at. The site is beautiful.

How can you let millions of dollars lie dormant slowly decaying and turning into junk? If I were 30 years younger, I would find a way to convert it into an asset rather than a blight on the community. I would take my skilled painters, plumbers, electricians and carpenters, head over to HUD, and see how we could take them over and make a buck. We could do just what those six guys did on the TLC program. We could renovate, rebuild, and turn our garbage into gold! They could be used as rental properties, converted to living quarters, cottages for tourists, something. I see these obvious opportunities, and I ask why aren’t we jumping on them?

How do we contact you to get started?

Tony: If you know anyone, your son or daughter or friends who are interested and motivated, you can contact George Sablan at 285-7410, or me at 287-8310. We’ll give you all the information you need.

Walt: It’s a unique gift you have, Tony, to be able to recognize opportunities and turn them into profitable businesses. Even though you’re not one of the instructors, what I’m excited about is that the lucky few who are able to get on board now at the start of MTI’s story will be fortunate to work closer with you than others who come later. I’m excited that the passion and insights you bring to this venture as well as your other businesses, will rub off on us.

Tony: Thanks, but it’s really about the community’s success. We’ve got what it takes right here in our community. We can do it. We have to do it. We have to invest in ourselves. When you invest in yourself, you get something that no one can take from you. You get control of your destiny, your land, your community and your children’s future.

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I ended last week’s column with the words “you have to start somewhere!” That start needs to happen in many places at once. It could start in community involvement, small business startups, health reform, and any number of areas, as people identify the needs, and fill them. If Saipan, Tinian and Rota are to experience the resurgence alluded to in my opening paragraph, there will be a need for competent trades people to build new homes, repair the existing ones. It’s one of the basic needs (food, clothing and shelter) that every nation’s population requires.

Note: For more tips on acting on your ideas, changing the game, and creating a passion-centered lifestyle, visit!

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Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!

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