Bringing Skilled Trades Training to People From All Walks of Life

Last May, Paul Tse, whose family moved to Maryland from Hong Kong when he was 10 years old, found himself in the unique position of testifying in front of the U.S. House of Representatives to explain how he’s living the American Dream—thanks to a career in construction.

As a 30-year-old project manager with Shapiro & Duncan, Inc., Rockville, Md., Tse went before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce as a staunch advocate for career and technical education (CTE). The statistics speak volumes: The construction industry will face a shortage of 1.6 million skilled workers by 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But for Tse, and many other young people, the opportunities afforded by CTE are more personal.
“I struggled as a student. I had attendance problems and lackluster grades. I fell into the wrong crowd and lacked any type of direction,” Tse stated in his testimony. “My life took a dramatic turn when a family member, who was a roofer, suggested I look into the skilled trades as a career path. Like many of my peers, I had been relentlessly pushed to attend a four-year college, as anything else was seen as settling for failure.
Paul Tse
“With the help of my guidance counselor, I found a local CTE program at Thomas Edison High School of Technology and nervously decided to enroll in an HVAC program my senior year.”

Within a week of graduation, Tse had offers to join two local companies as an apprentice. “Even before my peers packed up their cars and headed out for freshman move-in day, I accepted a position with Shapiro & Duncan and got right to work,” he said.

On-the-job training transferred what Tse learned in evening apprenticeship classes at Montgomery College to real-world projects, with the final result being an HVAC journeyman’s license. With the support of Shapiro & Duncan, he got his post secondary education at no cost and earned four years of salary and 32 college credit hours during that time.

Tse worked his way up the ladder from a field foreman running small projects to managing the award-winning INOVA Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Falls Church, Va. He is currently the project manager for the mechanical and plumbing components of seven buildings within the Dulles Corridor Metrorail maintenance facility (owned by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority).

Tse’s struggle-meets-success story parallels many others in the industry, with the crucial factor being a person—or an organization—caring enough to guide individuals toward construction careers.

“Instead of pushing kids down the ‘traditional’ path of college prep, we should be pushing kids to explore learning opportunities and prepare them for college and a career,” Tse testified. “Whether the destination is an engineering degree from the University of Maryland or a journeyman’s license from the state of Maryland, high schoolers should have equal opportunities to prepare for either pathway.”

Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) is working to address the industry’s worker shortage through more than 800 apprenticeship, craft training and safety training programs set up by its chapters around the country. Read on for examples of some recent initiatives supported by ABC chapters and member companies that are reaching out to students and adults from all walks of life.

Lighting a Spark Within Students
Time and again, industry members who grew up taking drafting and industrial arts classes cite the dearth of vocational training offered in public schools as the culprit of the skilled trades gap. The nation’s capital is a prime example. When John McMahon, chairman of Miller & Long Co., Inc., Bethesda, Md., was going through the D.C. public school system in the late 1950s, a mechanical drawing class ignited an interest in drafting that eventually turned into a construction degree from the University of Florida. “The public school system gave me a kick in the pants that I didn’t even realize at the time, but has made me a very successful individual,” McMahon says.

The problem is, all those high school courses have been stripped from the system, yet contractors in the D.C. area are constantly under siege for not hiring enough district residents and minorities.

“The bottom line is we hire employable people,” McMahon says. “What were they doing to provide those people? Nothing. They had it all backwards by abandoning vocational training.”

So 11 years ago, Miller & Long and a group of high-profile developers and contractors—Clark Construction Group, LLC, Donohoe Construction Co., GCS, Inc., JOBS Coalition, M.C. Dean, Inc., PN HoffmanProperty Group Partners, Shapiro & Duncan Mechanical Contractors, Sigal Construction and United Bank—took matters into their own hands with the creation of the D.C. Students Construction Trades Foundation’s Academy of Construction and Design (ACAD). The idea was to build an NCCER-accredited vocational school within Cardozo senior high school to set an example of what’s possible when a supportive learning environment puts students on the fast-track to employment, certification or further education.

The program worked well for a while, but eventually plateaued due to the challenges of existing within a massive public school system with constant changes in management. For the 2015-2016 school year, ACAD transitioned to a 10,000-square-foot skilled trades training facility on the campus of IDEA Public Charter School, where McMahon says their philosophies are better aligned and the program can better control its own destiny.

About 90 students participated in the first year at IDEA, which represents about one-third of the school’s population. Ninth graders took an introduction to construction class covering math, science and safety. This school year, as 10th-graders, they’ll complete more in-depth NCCER curriculum, including carpentry and electrical.

As ACAD’s director, Shelly Karriem makes it her mission to keep the kids’ eyes on the prize, which often means pushing through reading, math and science coursework in order to be able to do hands-on building projects. Two years ago, students built a micro-house outside Cardozo that was later transported to IDEA so they could finish the interior. This year, Karriem plans to get an earlier start on hands-on projects, such as picnic benches for the school campus, to keep kids engaged.

“In education, the ninth grade year is make or break,” she says. “If we’re going to lose them, it often happens that year, so we need to make something meaningful that they can touch, see and buy into.”

Adds McMahon: “There’s a natural instinct to build in all of us, but the example has to be set throughout your life. This type of learning motivates them to improve their academics overall.”

ACAD has sustained a greater than 90 percent completion rate since 2005, with about one-third of graduates hired for industry jobs leading to apprenticeship and on-the-job training, and the remaining two-thirds heading off to college.

One graduate, who was once thought to have learning disabilities, has been working at Miller & Long since 2011. Another young woman is working with Clark Construction while taking classes at the University of the District of Columbia. Another graduated from college debt-free with the support of M.C. Dean, where he now works as a project manager. A 2010 graduate went on to Bennett College and then returned to teach for ACAD. Others have gone on to Delaware State University and begun apprenticeships with GCS, Inc. in Washington, D.C.

Karriem knows all this because she has had the same cell phone number for 15 years and is generous enough to give it to graduates so they can call in times of celebration and in times of need.

“This program operates inside the walls and outside the walls of the school,” she says. “They call to give me updates. And if I can’t meet their need, that’s when our network of foundation members comes into play. Nine times out of 10, somebody can help.”

One ACAD graduate who had been homeless received a college scholarship, but was denied housing because he didn’t have a fixed address. “One of the biggest developers in town went to the president of the school and said ‘I’m backing this kid. Give him a room,’” McMahon recalls. “Our members don’t hesitate. They want to look after these kids.”

That means everything from hiring graduates and bringing students on jobsites to sending interns off to college with financial gifts and even sponsoring students on a trip to help build a school for orphaned children in Jamaica. “They give money, but this is really about building children’s lives. Anybody I’ve ever called grasps the importance and wants to be part of it,” McMahon says.

Local industry members also pack the room at ACAD’s annual Meet the Future Luncheon, where awards and scholarships are given out for academic and technical achievements, and the students come dressed in professional clothing with business cards and elevator speeches to test on the 200 businessmen and women in attendance.

“The real reward is lighting a spark in the kids who were seemingly destined to go nowhere,” McMahon says. “It’s about showing somebody we care about them and this is something they can do. Our vocation has been so successful for us, and we owe that experience to another generation.”

Filling the Entry-Level Talent Pipeline
It’s also critical to reach out to adults who are in a position to change careers. The ABC Illinois Chapter is doing just that through an electrical boot camp in coordination with the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC), Illinois Department of Commerce and Illinois Department of Employment Services (IDES).

As a registered Eligible Training Provider under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the ABC Illinois Chapter partnered with JARC to create a pre-apprenticeship program offering NCCER Level 1 electrical training—plus financial planning and résumé writing assistance—to unemployed residents of Cook County in the first half of 2016. Tuition was covered by a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce.
New ABC IL training center
IDES gauged interest in the program from people receiving unemployment benefits and the response was astounding: The ABC Illinois Chapter fielded more than 700 phone calls and emails within 24 hours. About 100 residents meeting eligibility requirements came to an orientation; that group was whittled down to 34 who came in for interviews and drug testing. The final class began with 21 students, 18 of which successfully completed the Core and Level 1 coursework.

“I was so impressed with the students’ level of responsibility and their enthusiasm for learning,” says Steve Foltin, vice president of education and safety for the ABC Illinois Chapter. “Many came from up to two hours away to attend class three days a week. They were always on time and demonstrated positive attitudes.”

That solid work ethic was put on display at a career fair in May. Importantly, under the grant program, hiring contractors are eligible for on-the-job training (OJT) money that offsets the first 16 weeks of the new employee’s salary.

“Contractors were excited about the opportunity to hire from a pool of candidates who had already proven to be motivated, reliable and drug free,” says ABC Illinois Chapter President Alicia Martin.

Two people were hired on the spot, eight were placed in jobs this summer, and a few more are still in the interview phase. Several contractors are using the OJT funding to continue their new hires’ Level 2 apprenticeship training with the ABC Illinois Chapter.

Manhattan Mechanical Services, Manhattan, Ill., added two boot camp graduates to its workforce on very short notice to meet upcoming needs. “Although they were trained in electrical and I’m a mechanical contractor, these two students excelled and jumped right in,” says Tom Wanamaker, Manhattan Mechanical Services’ workforce development manager. “They possess attributes I demand, such as punctuality, a willingness to learn and an ability to contribute to the team on day one.

“JARC walked me through the wage reimbursement process and made the entire process seamless,” Wanamaker adds. “This opportunity helps our organization fill the talent pipeline at the entry level. I look forward to leveraging this relationship as we continue to expand our diverse workforce.”

Plans are in the works to offer another boot camp this fall so the ABC Illinois Chapter can continue to grow its “family.”

“The students referred to themselves as part of the ABC family, and so did we,” Martin says. “Each had a unique story to tell of why they were on unemployment and some had very impressive credentials. Each left the program feeling empowered and proud of their accomplishments. There are too many heartwarming stories to share.”

Reducing Recidivism With Meaningful Employment
This summer, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services awarded more than $7.1 million in grants for communities to help former and current inmates learn vocational and life skills. About $755,000 is going toward core construction and safety training via the ABC Cornhusker Chapter, which has offices in Lincoln and Omaha, Neb.

During the two-year grant cycle, which ends in June 2018, the goal is to train 1,200 inmates in OSHA 10-hour for construction and general industry, as well as first-aid/CPR. Upon completion, the goal is to put 245 individuals in a nine- to 12-week NCCER Core Curriculum program, after which they will move into a craft training program. The trades being taught at each of the six targeted correctional facilities will be determined on a case-by-case basis, likely focusing on carpentry, electrical, HVAC, drywall and masonry.

Interested inmates must fill out an application, and then undergo vetting and processing procedures with wardens and re-entry specialists to ensure they are appropriate candidates. Until the inmates’ release, all training will occur within the corrections facilities, with instructors provided by the ABC Cornhusker Chapter, many of whom work for ABC member companies or are retired journeymen or industrial education teachers.

“The end goal is meaningful employment for these individuals to reduce the possibility of recidivism,” says Anne Klute, president of the ABC Cornhusker Chapter. “With proper training, or at least a start on their training in the trades, the hope is that individuals will have an opportunity for successful employment when released. We hope they continue in apprenticeship training so they can earn while they learn.

“Most companies I have spoken to who have hired past offenders have found they are very dedicated to the job, so it’s a win for the industry,” she says.

Chris Sills, president of Omaha-based Midlands Mechanical, Inc., has found success removing criminal offenses as a barrier to employment. Instead, the company measures all candidates based on an interview, personality profile and basic skills testing (e.g., math and spatial skills).

“We try to recruit folks with the right attitude and the natural ability to learn the trade,” Sills says. “We look at the person as an individual and look for drive and determination.”

In short, criminal status is of no concern unless the offense could somehow hinder the work. With that outlook, Sills has found ex offenders tend to respect the fact the company is willing to hire them, so they’re willing to work for it and redeem themselves. One man the company brought on board was in jail for shoplifting; now, he’s one of Midlands Mechanical’s best, and highest paid, employees.

“A lot of felons are fairly crafty and have good problem-solving skills and reasoning. It may sound humorous, but it’s true,” Sills says. “A lot of them were young and dumb. They’ve never really had a good helping hand to steer them in the right direction. When we show them the path and that they can be successful, contribute to society and earn a good living, they really step up.”


Joanna Masterson is senior editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org or follow @ConstructionMag.