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Electrical Superintendent Leads on the Jobsite and in the Classroom

Robert Stuart is proof that a little interest and mentorship from a construction business owner can go a long way toward bringing talented people to the industry.

As a teenager, Stuart learned the benefits of earning money and setting his own hours by doing yard work for his neighbor Scott Bailey, founder of Stronghold Engineering, Inc., Riverside, Calif. Impressed with the results, Bailey offered Stuart a part-time job in Stronghold’s shop the following summer. The timing was perfect for an introduction to the construction industry. Though Stuart performed well in school, he much preferred physical activity to sitting and doing homework. He had an interest in cars, but wasn’t sure if there was a future as a mechanic.

“I was weighing the options, but when I worked at Stronghold my junior year and got to drive stuff out to the jobsites, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I saw that the work would be more rewarding,” Stuart says. “The day I realized I could be the guy I am now, I rolled up to a job at Camp Pendleton, looking to drop something off for the foreman. I saw an older gentleman by the trailer and assumed he was the foreman, but the actual guy in charge was no older than I am now. It blew my mind. At that moment, I knew it was something I could do.”

Not wanting to give up on the idea of a college education, Stuart took night classes at a local junior college while working at Stronghold. But as time passed, he found he liked his job more and eventually focused full time on his apprenticeship (graduating in 2003). “I got lucky with Scott Bailey,” he says. “Had I not met him, I think I would have gone to college full time.”

Now, with about 15 years in the trades under his belt, Stuart is an electrical superintendent with Stronghold Engineering and an instructor in the electrical apprenticeship program sponsored by Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) Southern California Chapter. In 2011, ABC National recognized him as the Craft Instructor of the Year. In May, he added to the accolades by winning ABC’s 2014 Craft Professional of the Year award, which honors someone who demonstrates a passion for his or her trade and whose commitment to excellence makes him or her the ultimate example of merit shop success in the field.

Hands-On Attention to Detail
Stuart has been instrumental in executing some of Stronghold’s most challenging and complex projects involving electrical crews of journeymen and apprentices, as well as subcontractors and numerous other trades. Currently, Stuart is wrapping up final details on a $14 million, 264-unit student housing project at the University of California, Riverside. Stuart has been onsite since January 2013, adhering to a fast-paced schedule and maximizing the project flow to minimize delays, cost overruns, and conflicts with the different trades and firms working collaboratively to complete eight structures.

“Robert is extremely cooperative, as well as proactive in coordinating his crew,” says John Warren, senior project manager for Clark Construction. “His experience and communication skills have made him an ideal leader.”

The job boasts more than 45,000 manhours without an injury or accident. Stuart starts a typical day with a morning huddle, consisting of about 40 workers who stretch and warm up during the discussion. Stuart goes through the paces of what’s expected of the crew that day and that week, as well as talks about safety issues to look out for. Further oversight is dedicated to a safety officer so Stuart is free to answer questions and bounce around to coordination meetings with the general contractor (Clark Construction) and the MEP and fire alarm subcontractors.

“To make safety work, it has to be simple,” he says. “We have a 100 percent glove policy, but guys take them off to eat lunch, so we gave them clips so it’s easy to put them back on. Harnesses have to be right there too.

“You’ve got to walk the walk. They mimic what you do. If you take safety seriously, then they will too. It’s a vibe you have with your crew.”

Other aspects of Stuart’s priority-juggling act include motivating his crew, putting out fires and picking up his tools to help meet a deadline—whether it’s preparing to start up boilers or energizing a roof. Though it’s in his nature to work with his hands, Stuart credits a former supervisor for teaching him not to stand back; there’s always time to jump in and help.

“Each job is a new opportunity to do something better than the last time. There’s always a different atmosphere, and you get to meet different people,” he says. “I get the best of both worlds wearing multiple hats. I can spend three to four hours in the office or spend the whole day in the field.”

The Bigger Picture
When he’s not on the jobsite or spending time with his wife and three kids, Stuart usually can be found in the classroom. He has been an instructor in the ABC apprenticeship program since 2005 and is getting ready to kick off another night class next month. In addition to the camaraderie of a classroom and getting to talk about the industry he enjoys so much, Stuart says a major benefit of teaching is staying up to date on code issues and new types of materials.

His overall approach to teaching includes sharing best practices and getting students to see the bigger picture outside the electrical trade. “A lot of training is showing guys tricks of the trade. I try to tell them why we do what we do so they can incorporate it on a daily basis onsite to make their jobs easier,” Stuart says. “Sometimes instruction focuses on the technical aspects more than human interaction. I sidebar my conversations with tips for interacting with other trades because in the field you have to coordinate with everyone to make something work.”

As such, Stuart emphasizes the importance of young workers being able to express themselves verbally and via email, as well as understand what people are saying and relay that message to others. For example, while certain lingo may seem acceptable onsite, it’s important to be able to transition to more professional communication during client meetings.

Stuart is impressed with his apprentices’ tech-savvy communication skills (e.g., sending a picture so they can discuss and solve a problem virtually) and ability to catch onto things very quickly. What he hopes to instill in the next generation is a stronger ambition to take on leadership roles and follow in the footsteps of their journeyman teachers.

Outside the classroom, Stuart has been chairman of the ABC Southern California Craft Championship Committee for the past six years. (He competed in the event in 2002 and 2003, finishing in second place both times.) He also is active in the Apprenticeship 411 program, in which he conducts hands-on training, equipment demonstrations and seminars for high school students and their parents.

“Hopefully I can be a bug in their ear that you can make a good living in the construction industry—just as good as going to college—and use your hands and be outdoors,” he says. “There are lots of opportunities for advancement under the merit shop philosophy. It’s not about who you are or who you know. You’re rewarded by the quality of work you produce and how safely you do it.”

Meet the Finalists

The three other Craft Professional of the Year finalists share award-winner Robert Stuart’s passion for the construction industry in their own unique way.

Binesh Prasad – Electrician
Keithly Electric Company, Seattle

His journey to the industry: I was born and raised in Fiji, went to University of South Pacific for one year of accounting and came to the United States in 1998 at age 23. I found a job with 7-Eleven and two years later moved from California to Seattle and became a naturalized citizen. I found a job with an electric supply company, where Keithly Electric’s purchasing manager was one of the customers. When I got laid off in 2001, Keithly offered me a job as a helper and later I was brought into the office to do purchasing and billing. I decided to change my career to become an electrician and Keithly put me through school for four years.

Being a positive role model: When apprentices work with me, I tell them what I went through—there wasn’t even a light bulb in my house growing up. I tell them to set a goal and they’ll reach it someday.

Employer brag: When it was time to augment our purchasing and warehouse staff, we knew Benny would be a good fit. He was always hustling and smiling and always had a kind word for our staff. When we realized we needed to develop more craft professionals, Benny was ready for a new challenge. There was no hesitation that becoming a skilled electrician was what he wanted to do. He has greatly contributed to our success.

John Reese Kuhn II – Welder, Pipefitter, Boilermaker and Rigger
Manhattan Mechanical Services LLC, Manhattan, Ill.

Welding philosophy: All that matters is that you make two pieces into one piece without any imperfections. It doesn’t matter who’s the best so long as it’s done right.

Why he went the craft route: I went to one year of college for construction management, but there wasn’t enough hands-on learning. I decided to leave Kansas and go to the Missouri Welding Institute. For one of my first jobs, I went up to Nebraska all nervous and scared by myself, but once I met people and physically saw the things I was doing, I got hooked.

 Industry benefits: You can go anywhere you want and travel the country or stay in one spot. There’s great pay, great honor and it’s a great way to take care of your family. Being a tradesman is an American tradition.

Employer brag: You can give John a project and he owns it. His maturity and expertise far exceed his age. He treats safety with the highest priority and sets a great example to everyone around him. We always say we wish we had 10 Johnnys.

Tony Brown – Plumber, Pipefitter and Welder
Dilling Group, Inc., Logansport, Ind.

Major influence: My step-dad came into the picture when I was 7 years old and showed me the right and wrong ways to do things. He lost his job as a salesman, so I got him into the electrical field. He went back to school at 56 years old and got his electrical license last year.

Ambitions: In five to 10 years I want to be a project manager, and eventually I want to run Dilling. For everything I’ve done and learned, I try to give back twice as much. I work 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. and teach Monday and Tuesday nights and Saturdays on top of that.

Motivating the next generation: We set goals at the beginning for what they want to get out of the class, and I spend a lot of time with people who start to fall behind. I also tell young people to find a trade they love and would like to do the rest of their life. There are so many opportunities to grow in this industry with so many great companies.

Employer brag: Tony teaches, supports and mentors craft professionals of all levels while he continues to learn and grow himself. He is honest, genuine, hardworking, loyal and passionate. There is no end to what he would do for his coworkers, family, friends and those in his community.

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

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