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“Right after I clock in, I get with my pipefitter and foreman, and we talk about the work we will do that day. My fitter and I talk about the work ahead of us, how we will work safely, and then we do our safety task analysis,” says Cheryl Briscoe, a craft pipefitter helper at Houston-based S&B Engineers and Constructors, which co-sponsors a specialized, accelerated craft training program for non-traditional local workers. 

In 2014 and 2015, Associated Builders and Contractors, Associated General Contractors and NCCER forecasted a shortage of skilled construction workers in the tens of thousands due to the Great Recession and a decrease in the number of high schools offering vocational-technical training. The exodus from the industry and the slow refilling has contributed to the shortage of skilled construction workers. 

For S&B, like many other construction companies, it was evident that traditional student and craft training programs would not produce skilled workers fast enough. After a review of several types of training programs in the Houston area, it was clear a successful training program not only needed to provide accredited training, but also had to take into account the diverse population, the social structure of families and the financial pressures imposed on families today.

Keeping these factors in mind, S&B created a pilot program that provided accelerated, accredited training for female pipefitters. Today the Women’s Training Program is a full-fledged collaboration among S&B, United Way THRIVE and Texas Workforce Solutions, with each organization bringing something special to the training program.

The program was piloted on an S&B construction project in Mont Belvieu, Texas. THRIVE and Workforce Solutions developed screening tools to identify candidates who would work well in a construction environment. S&B then interviewed those candidates and identified 20 prospects. Each candidate was offered full-time employment and enrollment as a trainee in the program. As a full-time employee, each trainee received a helper 3 hourly wage ($16 per hour) and health care benefits.

S&B conducted technical training using NCCER’s Contren, with Level 1 pipefitting modules covering Basic Safety, Introduction to Power Tools, Pipefitting Hand Tools, Field Routing and Vessel Trim, Identify and Install Valves, and Rigging Practices. Training was conducted via a rotating schedule in which trainees were in classrooms/labs and then moved to the field where they performed construction work under the supervision of an assigned journeyman pipefitter. S&B provided soft skills courses such as those relating to working in teams, interaction with supervision and coworkers, and business ethics.

In addition, THRIVE conducted a course on personal financial management to strengthen students’ resolve. This helped alleviate stress associated with the students’ additional income and prevented work performance issues. 

Positive Results
The goal of the Women’s Training Program was to transform trainees into qualified pipefitter helpers. While S&B did not retain and train all enrollees who started the program, a few numbers and stories stand out from the program.

Sixteen of the 20 trainees completed the program. Only one of the 16 graduates has left S&B; however, she is working for another employer in the construction industry.

All 16 graduates are continuing their enrollment in craft training with the intention of becoming a fully accredited, journey-level pipefitter. 

No loss in production was experienced during the implementation of the program. 

When graduates were asked what they liked about the program, it was no surprise that training and obtaining knowledge of the construction industry were tops. A surprise was the benefit of the THRIVE Financial Coaching. Collectively over the 12-week period, women were spending $1,775 less each month as a result of the coaching. In addition, the trainees have paid off more than $10,500 of outstanding debt and have saved more than $3,400.

What Next?
“Our biggest measure of success is that we were able to move under-employed and unemployed individuals from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder to a position where they can earn $18 to $32 an hour. In addition, we were able to add 16 more qualified pipefitter helpers to the construction industry,” says Mike Stilley, S&B’s director of training and development. Stilley says a second and third course at another S&B construction project and a plant maintenance project may be on the horizon.

The shortage of skilled, qualified construction workers is a real problem for the industry. The Women’s Training Program model is not the only way to address the shortage, but one of many innovative, contemporary ways to start chipping away at it.

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