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The Labor Shortage Is Bringing Various Craft Training Ideas to the Fore

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The following article was authored by Mark L. Johnson and originally published in AWCI's Construction Dimensions magazine.

John Hinson is giving away trade secrets.

“We want to improve everyone in the workforce, not just our people,” says the Dallas–Fort Worth Division President at Marek in Coppell, Texas.

Specifically, Hinson has licensed the Marek companies’ craft training program to the Construction Education Foundation of North Texas—and done so without charge to the Foundation. Yeah, he just gave it away. Marek’s competitors in Dallas–Fort Worth now have access to Marek’s formerly proprietary, in-house workforce development program. Open-shop drywall firms can now send their crews to CEF to receive the equivalent of union apprenticeship training. For Hinson, no worries.

“If you raise the water, that makes all the boats rise,” he says.

The Give-Away
Throughout North America, construction activity is relatively healthy. Projects are underway and more are being put out to bid. Still, most organizations continue to forecast vast shortages of qualified construction workers, a problem that’s not expected to clear up anytime soon.

“The need for talent has grown exponentially just in the last few years,” says Mark Breslin, an expert in construction leadership, strategy and labor-management relations and founder of Breslin Strategies, Inc., Alamo, Calif.

Wall and ceiling companies are constantly scouting for skilled workers. But a bigger issue than finding qualified labor is figuring out how to get that labor trained and up to speed quickly. This is where the story gets interesting.

For two decades, Marek lacked a formal craft training program. Before the mid-1980s, the company had been a Carpenters union contractor. It employed hundreds of union-trained apprentices and journeymen and, Hinson says, looked to the union as a source for training expertise.

Then came the passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. When the act became law, the new character of immigration completely changed the workforce in Texas. The Carpenters union found it difficult to compete with a steady supply of documented immigrant drywallers. Immigrant workers, Hinson says, were willing to work for $5 an hour.

Eventually, Marek’s collective bargaining agreement with the union ended and the company became a non-union shop. But where the union once provided qualified construction workers, the non-union Marek now struggled to train its crews.

“We tried a ton of things for 20 years,” Hinson says. “‘Let’s get a mentoring program. Let’s bring in courses. Let’s try partnering.’ Nothing worked.”

In 2006, Marek developed the Marek Workforce Development program. Hinson says a key to the program was defining craft expectations properly.

“We wrote down what would make for a talented, proficient, qualified craftsman,” Hinson says. “We had to say specifically what would constitute a journeyman, so that we all agreed on the standard.”

Now, Marek has given it all away. CEF administers the program in partnership with the DFW Drywall and Acoustical Contractors Association.

“There are 1,800 craftsmen who signed up,” Hinson says. “And everybody’s looking at this program, because it’s in direct competition with the unions.”

Philosophical Change
So, what are the unions doing these days? What is attendance like at union apprenticeship classes?

“I’d say the labor shortage is not affecting our training at all,” says Bill Rogers, executive director, Plasterers & Cement Masons Job Corps. “We got more signups in 2016 than we’ve seen in a while, because the recession is in our wake.”

Growth in construction is bringing more people to the union, Rogers says. They’re applying for admission to union programs, getting accepted, attending classes and going out as apprentices.

“The important factor is the amount of work going on,” says Rob Schwartz, wounded warrior program director at Helmets to Hardhats, a national program that connects National Guard, Reserve, veterans and transitioning active-duty military service members with skilled training and quality career opportunities in the construction industry. Helmets to Hardhats itself does not provided training, but it helps advise candidates interested in construction careers.

“A few years ago, there was a real halt in work, Schwartz says. “Now that work is picking up and projects are moving forward, we’re helping more veterans get into construction careers.”

If anything, the unions have broadened their perspective on training. Over the last 20 to 30 years, Rogers says, the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association has added programs to not only to train, but also added courses of continuing education for journeymen. It’s not just about apprentices anymore.

“That’s a big philosophy change,” Rogers says. “Today, we’re more proactive in offering opportunities to our seasoned trade veterans so they can stay viable on the job much longer.”

Better Candidate Assessments
Something else changing for the unions is the arrival of better apprentice-candidate screening.

In 2013, Breslin began working with some academics in developing an advanced way of pre-screening individuals interested in construction careers. The initiative, which Breslin calls “Realistic Job Preview,” or RJP, is now deployed among a few union apprenticeship programs (see sidebar, below left).

“It’s being used by two crafts,” Breslin says. “One serves the drywall and taping industry.”

RJP helps the unions to reduce their apprentice program dropout rates, Breslin says. This leads to more serious job candidates entering the construction field. By using a series of criteria and questioning, RJP helps unions identify candidates with a stronger and more committed sense of what they want to do with their lives, rather than admit candidates choosing construction for lack of better knowledge.

“RJP helps to avoid the mentality of ‘just give me bodies,’” Breslin says. “That may work during boom times, but when the boom is over and you haven’t filtered your new hires, all of a sudden you’re stuck with people ill-equipped to do the job.”

RJP is helpful in the context of today’s worker shortage because it helps the unions and union construction companies to land talent more likely to remain in the industry.

More Organizations Training
Rob Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Frederick, Md., says lots of groups are working to bring people into the construction industry. These include unions, of course, but also newer organizations focused on developing young people.

Something popular in Maryland right now, Aird says, is the Maryland Center for Construction Education and Innovation. On its website, MCCEI describes itself as an “industry-led workforce intermediary” for the built environment. It exists to help non-union employers.

“It’s an attempt to bring people into the industry and train them,” Aird says.

MCCEI began in 2009 by bringing together educators, industry partners and the state of Maryland to address workforce development issues. Then, an MCCEI study in 2011 and 2012, “The Critical Path” report, determined that Maryland’s construction workforce was not prepared for the future. Not only that, but the state would be “dependent on other states to provide higher quality workers,” the report said.

Thus, MCCEI’s goal is to entice young people in high school and community colleges to pursue construction careers, and that starts by changing the perception of what a construction career is all about.

“We need to get away from the image that construction workers are dirty grubs in the mud who only work in the heat and cold,” Aird says. “There’s so much more to our work.”

Organizations such as MCCEI and CEF are taking responsibility for training in their own hands. And they have ideas, resources and financial backing to move forward.

“Emphasis should be on new four-year programs in the area of construction management, specialized training in specific software including BIM, training in green construction and modularization, and combined academic/apprenticeship programs for skilled craftspeople,” said MCCEI’s “The Critical Path” report.

Borrowing from Others
As construction training programs appear in various places and by various organizations, some training programs are simply being shared from one competitor to the next.

Michael Heering, president of F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc., Fulton, Miss., says his open-shop firm is developing a new formal training program. F.L. Crane, Heering says, is working on manuals to specify precise installation methods for assemblies, set man-hour expectations for those assemblies and test trainees’ knowledge of the methods. But the architecture for the program is coming from Marek, he says.

“They gave us the training manuals they use, and we’re tweaking them,” Heering says. “We’re basing ours off what they have done.”

While competitors sharing their private programs may seem unusual, Heering says the practice is supported by the severity of today’s labor shortage. You may wonder whether it make sense to call your competitor across town to ask to borrow his training manuals but, in many ways, it makes perfect sense.

“We recognize that we all have to do better at training,” Heering says. “We’re all trying to figure out how we can hire more people who can perform to our standards and who will stay in the industry.”

Eradicating Poverty
Rogers says the industry’s Job Corps pre-apprenticeship program involving OPCMIA, the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry and the United States Department of Labor has been around since the 1960s.

“We take young people between the ages of 16 and 24, mostly from poverty-stricken situations and many of them foster kids, and put them in a construction boot camp,” Rogers says.

The program teaches youths the basics of acceptable behaviors on a job site and how to succeed at work. Rogers believes Job Corps is a key conduit of talent to the industry, but also a powerful factor creating societal change.

“We see the labor shortage as a boon to us being able to eradicate poverty in America,” Rogers says.

But how? One way is through education. Job Corps uses what Rogers calls “applied academics.” This is where union craft trainers team up with high school teachers. Rogers, for example, can send a plaster instructor to high school to co-teach a math or a science class. The Job Corps instructor brings practical, on-the-job applications to classroom, and the effect is profound.

“We’re reaching young people in a way public education has not been able to do,” Rogers says.

The federal government has a vast network of recruitment apparatuses to identify and funnel kids into the Job Corps program. Rogers’ task is to place the youths who graduate from the program in union apprenticeships. They tend to do well in life.

“Leaders, contractors and trainers throughout America have gone through the program,” Rogers says. “Many will say that if it hadn’t been for Job Corps, they’d be dead or in jail.”

So what’s next? It’s not easy for drywall firms to develop effective training programs from scratch. Companies that at least make some training available—through in-house programs, working with the unions or through other accredited means—report getting superior productivity and greater long-term job satisfaction from their workers.

“My clients appreciate that fact that they get a better product,” Hinson says. “So, that’s what my ‘sell’ is.”

That leaves the ball in the court of wall and ceiling firms needing to act. Opportunities exist to get your crews trained.

“We all need to take that step,” Aird says.

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly for the construction industry about workforce development topics. Catch him at @markjohnsoncomm and linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.

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