Ian Alvstad spent his whole life working in construction in some form or another. Even when he tried to go to school or work other jobs, the industry kept calling him back. Now he’s sharing his love of construction with high schoolers in Wyoming through the Wyoming Young Contractors Association, which promotes the industry and works to better the lives of workers in the state.
How did you get into construction?
I got into construction at a young age—actually, my father taught me how to build things. I started by helping out with projects around the house, like building my own bunk beds, and I ended up being pretty good at it. It carried on once I got to college. I had a couple of opportunities with friends who had businesses remodeling or building houses, and I worked for them on the side while went to school. I actually went to school a handful of times, but it turned out to not really be for me at the time. I had a hard time going to school, being poor and not being able to work so that I could go to school and get a degree and hopefully make the kind of money I was already making to begin with. I decided I was just going to work. I moved to Seattle after college and had a part-time job at night working for UPS, but I needed something to do during the day. I made friends with some folks that remodeled houses and flipped houses, and I would do that during the day for them. My cousin was a member of the carpenters union in Seattle, and he set up an opportunity for me with them to test and hire on as a journeyman. I got to start working in some really cool environments, and I got to the point where I was making the best money I had made in my life. I started my own business flipping houses and doing residential construction, but then my wife and I decided to move to Denver. The carpenters union wasn’t super strong, and I wasn’t staying really busy so I got a job working security in a bank. But I still found myself going back to doing construction and helping people out with side jobs.
How did you get started with 71 Construction?
We moved back to Wyoming when my son was born because we wanted to be closer to family, and I got on with an electrical contractor in town as a warehouse coordinator. I did that for a few years before I got a job offer out in the oil field. Then that went belly up, and I found myself in a position where I needed to fall back on my construction experience again. The skills I had learned in the oil field, wellbore positioning and tree mapping, gave me a position to get on with 71 Construction to do GPS mapping and 3D modeling for job sites.
Why did you keep coming back to construction?
I’ve held all kinds of jobs, but as I progressed through life, construction has always been that common thread and that skillset that I fell back on. No matter where I’m at, I can always find work in construction. That’s the great thing about the skill set you get in the industry. It affords you opportunities to move and travel and see different places. That was one of the great things about the carpenters union. I worked from Canada all the way down into Oregon, and I got to work on some neat jobs.
What advice do you have for people who may be looking to start a new career?
My advice would be to check out construction. No matter what your personality type is, no matter what you’re into, there’s something in construction for you. If you’re into computers—or maybe you’re not much of a heavy labor type of person—there are opportunities for just about anybody in construction. It really is a great way of life. It really affords you a great opportunity to be able to provide for your family.
You’re in a unique position to actually help recruit new talent into construction. What do you tell those kids?
I’m currently the vice chairman of the Wyoming Young Contractors Association, so I get to speak in schools with juniors and seniors who are trying to figure out what career path they want to take. We’ve got a wide variety of personalities. We’ve got the kids that are really into computers who might not consider the construction industry as the opportunity that it is. But with the advancements they’ve made in construction, we’ve got killer, cutting-edge technology that we get to implement. Those guys are exactly what we need because they have that mindset to run with new technology and create 3D models of construction job sites and make it work. Your stereotypical construction workers don’t necessary have that skillset. We need that wide variety, so there is really an opportunity for anybody in construction if they take the time to look.
What job or project are you most proud of?
It’d probably be my first job with 71 Construction, the first job site I did some 3D modeling on. It was my first application of the GPS automation. That was something new to me, and it was new to 71 Construction. I was a good fit just because they didn’t have anyone to run it and I didn’t know how to run it, but we were going to figure it out together. We did an apartment complex that was 11 acres. When we went through and set it all up, it was the first time to see the GPS in action and make it work. I’d spent a couple of months trying to get it ready, sweating the details and hoping it would all pan out. That project actually is just starting to wrap up, and we drive by it all the time. My son knows that I worked on it. He points it out every time we drive by it. Being able to drive around town and having my kid recognize that I helped build something, it’s a really proud moment for me. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.
What made you keep coming back to construction?
Honestly, it was the money. I would get in a bind, and I always knew that I could go and make good money in construction. I enjoyed the hard work, and I enjoyed working with my hands and the satisfaction you get when you’re done and you can look back and say, ‘I built that.’ It’s stuff like that, the pride of workmanship and the satisfaction, that keeps bringing me back. That, and of course the money.
Some people think they won’t make good money in construction, and others think they’ll walk right in and start making big bucks. What do you tell people about those what to expect?
We do want them to have reasonable expectations. We don’t want them to think that they’re going to come onsite and work for a year and be a foreman the next year. It’s hard work. But it is worth it. We want them to understand that before they start. You have to start somewhere, and there’s nothing wrong with starting at the bottom. You might want to be an equipment operator, but you’re probably going to start out as a laborer. But there will be opportunities. Maybe one day they’ll be short a guy and need an operator, and today is your day to learn because you’re there. Those opportunities will present themselves for you to get into the place you want. If you want to be in the office, you can get there too. But to be really good at estimating jobs, you need some time in the field to understand the work involved and the time it takes. All of that makes you better in the long run and gives you the opportunities to pursue what you want. All the jobs I’ve had have cumulatively provided me the opportunity to be where I’m at now. I’ve gotten to a point where about half my season is spent in the office and the other half is in the field. I really enjoy that. It works great for me.
How does your wife feel about construction?
She loves this so much more compared to some jobs I’ve done in the past. I used to be a tree climber out in Seattle, doing logging. That was really dangerous work. I’ve worked setting up scaffolding above 17-story buildings. What I’m doing now is so much less dangerous. The industry as a whole is still dangerous, but even in the oil field you’ve got rigs that will go down or you’ll have huge incidents. She couldn’t stand that.
What surprises the kids you talk to about construction?
The one that always seems to get them is the money. We’ve made trading cards for different careers in the industry -- welders, mechanics, truck drivers, equipment operators, etc. We’ve gone through and put average salaries in Wyoming, locally, for these positions. That always grabs their attention.
Why should people look at construction?
We’ve got a very energy-driven economy here in Wyoming, and a lot of these guys that like to work with their hands just want to go into the oil field. But there’s a lot of ebb and flow in oil and gas. When I was laid off, I was one of 10,000 field hands that the company laid off in that round, and that was their second round of layoffs. It was over, just like that. Even though things are starting to pick back up locally, I still don’t know if I could find work in oil and gas. And even if they offered me twice as much money as I make now, I don’t think I’d take it. There are no loyalties there.