Technician training for the new millennium

July 18, 2000
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Labor shortages have been humming around this industry like hungry mosquitoes for years. Now the whole construction industry is being chewed up. In Houston’s booming market, new home sales were down 12.7% in August due in part to shortages of skilled labor.

You can be a victim or a problem solver. If you think you’re too busy to be a problem solver, consider how much busier you’ll be in a couple of years when you’re doing the extra service calls yourself after work and on weekends.

Some contractors around the country can relax a bit, knowing they’re part of the solution in their areas. Even if real peace of mind is a few years away, they have to feel good about what they have achieved.

Some are activists in apprenticeship training programs organized by ACCA chapters in Maryland and Texas.

The program sponsored by the National Capital Chapter was profiled in The News issue of June 28, 1999. North Texas Chapter’s program was profiled Nov. 18, 1996. Other chapters, like Florida’s Palm Beach, are involved in cooperative ventures that achieve the same objective. Activists in Arizona are exploring their options.

No one said it would be easy, but solving tough problems is never easy. It takes a mighty effort by a lot of hard-working people — mainly contractors, but others, too.

What contractors are actually doing

The Palm Beach Chapter has an 18-year history with an Associated General Contractor apprenticeship program. ACCA members participated in developing the curriculum and now sponsor apprentices. Classes meet Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Ken Cook, an instructor in the program for nine years, says, “One thing that makes it unique is that instructors are also working in the field, so students get the latest technology and techniques.”

Trainees spend about one-third of their time (2 hrs/week) in a state-of-the-art lab that’s equipped with $100,000 worth of equipment. Sometimes they bring to the job information that’s new, even to experienced journeymen.

Says Cook, “Smithco has about 20 people who’ve been through the four-year curriculum. We have about 12 currently in the program, and four grads who are instructors. About 70% of our technical staff are grads of the program.

“To be employed here, even the most qualified applicant must have the last two years of this instruction.”

Palm Beach has developed an innovative program, the Academy at Royal Palm Beach High School. Kathryn Bernsen, executive director of the chapter, says, “The four-year academy, first of its kind in the state, uses the same curriculum as the AGC program.” (See sidebar, page 15.)

The ACCA-Central Maryland Chapter took a fair amount of time getting state approval for its program, Bob Chason recalls. “National Capital Chapter had a successful apprenticeship program in place. They partnered with us; that helped a lot.”

The State of Maryland requires policies covering such things as selection and recruiting, layoff, wages, and discrimination. For example, does the education requirement discriminate against high school dropouts?

Marie Anderson, the chapter’s executive director, says, “Upon completion, apprentices automatically receive their journeyman’s licenses. Certificates from the chapter and state are accepted in lieu of the traditional journeyman’s test.”

Four years into the program, some 70 young people are participating, most of them first and second-year students recruited by members. About newcomers’ progress on the job, it’s a bit too soon to tell.

Steve Faulkner sponsors three students, two in first year, one in fourth year. “The fourth-year apprentice is doing great. Every year I see a big improvement in his skills. I think he’s getting a lot of satisfaction from his work.”

Bob Chason has this idea: “As an incentive, sponsors should pay the student’s tuition based on his grades: 100% for an A, 90% for a B, and so on.”

Richard Foard adds, “We’ve actually put a new spin on the program. We are opening it to some of our journeymen mechanics who want to go back for more education or a refresher, supporting those who go back and audit the course.”

ACCA-Greater Houston partnered with North Harris County College to open a program that’s still in its infancy, but appears to have a bright future.

Bob Elolf says, “Members did have input about curriculum. It wasn’t of highest importance to me. To me the highest importance was getting the program started. The college helped by partnering with us.”

Getting techs to stay put

This year the college did most of the recruiting; the association brought applicants and members together. Some members are reluctant to sponsor a trainee, lest he jump ship.

Says Don Garnier, “You just hope you can build a loyalty that will keep the apprentice here. Hopefully we can keep this one, and put another technician on a service truck who’ll be able to do commercial work as well as the next guy.”

To build loyalty and create an incentive for them to stay, Houston contractors will start students at $8/hr, but withhold $1 toward an incentive bonus. Says Garnier, “We hope he’ll feel, ‘These people have treated me right,’ and he’ll want to stay.”

When he completes the program, the graduate will receive an $8,000 bonus based on $2,000/yr. That windfall has a lot riding on it, says Betty Kristofferson, the chapter’s executive director.

Says Elolf, “Sponsoring an apprentice now may seem expensive. But you have to consider work you lose when you can’t man the jobs. Every year we lose hundreds of thousands of dollars to unlicensed people because we can’t take care of all the service work.”

Greater Houston’s program is located in northwest Harris County, a tough drive for some trainees. Says Kristofferson, “We hope to duplicate this program in other parts of the city.”

The Arizona-Maricopa Chapter with Carol Gougen, executive director, is exploring programs sponsored by other chapters and affiliation with an existing program.

With five and possibly a good many more programs in place, Don Garnier predicts that in five years the industry will experience some relief from the acute shortage of technicians that exists in most areas now.

That will justify the effort . . . and then some.

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