The search for solving related and significant workforce issues for a New Jersey-based labor-management association and a local social service organization began over that proverbial “cup of coffee.”
The issue, in its simplest terms, was clear. The Carpenter Contractor Trust was searching for ways to attract recruits to its ranks — men and women who had the brains and temperament to become union carpenters ultimately. A social service organization, the Puerto Rican Association for Human Development Inc. (PRAHD), had thousands of people passing through its offices annually. They understood that those who found a well-paying job could figuratively leapfrog into the middle class.
The result of that January 2014 meeting became the touchstone that, several years later, resulted in a well-publicized working agreement to attract people to a construction trade and offer candidates, many with a hard-scrabble background, an opportunity for economic freedom. It also became, intentionally or otherwise, a blueprint that others could follow.
Kevin P. McCabe, president of Edison, New Jersey-based Carpenter Contractor Trust NY/NJ (CCT), grew up in the area, worked for a New Jersey governor, served as a commissioner of labor (the second-youngest in New Jersey history) and spent 11 years with the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters (NRCC). His organization, the CCT, is the marketing arm of union carpenters and signatory contractors.
Before Yvonne Lopez became the CEO and president of PRAHD, she had spent 20 years in corporate America honing her professional skills.
Lopez began to feel that being involved in work that actually helped others had become increasingly important.
Lopez wanted to know whether the carpenter’s union might be fertile territory for her constituency to reach out for possible employment opportunities. After all, everyone knew that the union carpenters received excellent pay, and finding jobs for her constituency was a part of her organization’s mission.
“Yvonne wanted to see if there was any possibility of developing a relationship with us and her clientele,” McCabe said. “Was there a path to success? She really didn’t know, and I didn’t really know.”
“I said to her, ‘If we’re going to do this, we just have to understand the most important part of long-term success is managing the expectation level.’ That’s how it started.”
What they ultimately settled on was the concept of a pre-apprenticeship program, a mini-introduction to the apprentice carpentry curriculum that would give potential candidates a taste of what the real carpenter’s experience was like.
They brought in Ridley Hutchinson, executive director of the NJ Carpenters Apprentice Training and Educational Fund, to discuss the technical aspects of the potential pre-apprenticeship program, ironing out what courses would make sense. While Hutchinson wears a tie these days administering the NRCC’s training center in Kenilworth, N.J., he came up through the ranks as a carpenter and has a finely tuned sense of which introductory courses make sense.
For McCabe, it was always about expectations. “The management [support] and the expectation level are really important,” he says. “Historically speaking, I think there was that real divide, a real impediment, where community-based organizations believed or were under the impression that they could corral some individuals who had the slightest degree of interest and place them in the hands of a trade that would hire them.” The stumbling block is the lack of understanding and a connection to each other’s culture that makes similar programs difficult to implement successfully, according to McCabe.
McCabe explains it this way: “Working in the construction business is not like working at a minimum-wage job. Someone can work at the counter of a fast-food restaurant with minimal training. It’s honest work, and they’re trying hard. But there’s this misconception that anyone can work on a construction site,” McCabe said. “The technical and life skills are also so important including the rudimentary skills of getting up, being at the job on time — which means being 15 minutes early, withstanding the elements of the environment. It can be a grind.
“To that end, you’re not going to take anyone. There isn’t an entity in their right mind who would take a blank slate of an individual and just say, ‘OK, go get them.’ I don’t know why that expectation level should apply to the trades as well.”
Lopez’s social service organization, simply defined, wants to help improve the lives of residents in the three-county area that PRAHD operates. Their stated goal is unambiguous: They work “toward ensuring the success and advancement of individuals in need.” A fundamental component of that goal is finding jobs for people, and even better, finding them a well-paying job that offers a future and security — inshort, a profession. It’s an elemental branch on the employment tree that preoccupies much of Lopez’s time. She will tell you that a job begins to ease people out of poverty, and a well-paying job moves them into the middle class.
McCabe’s task involves a different branch of the employment tree. As the leader of the CCT, he flies at the 10,000-foot level promoting the goals of his union carpenters and signatory contractors. It’s a huge and influential skilled workforce; the NRCC is composed of about 40,000 union carpenters and signatory contractors in New Jersey, New York (except the five boroughs of New York City), Delaware, Greater Philadelphia and parts of Maryland. The message that McCabe’s organization promotes is simple but not simplistic. If a developer or builder is thinking about a project, they should consider union carpenters or signatory contractors who have agreements to hire carpenters through various union locals.
Lopez was already aware that union carpenters enjoy an excellent wages, are respected in their community and have a skil set that isn’t transferable to an untrained person, nor one that a machine could perform. In short, the skill set was valued and not easily replaced.
Lopez’s enthusiasm for carpentry grew during that first meeting as McCabe expanded on future possibilities. “Kevin’s comments piqued my interest because the population that we serve here, for the most part, you have a lot of folks who, for one reason or another, cannot attain higher education. It might be for financial reasons, maybe family circumstances, or they have to work during the day. When we talked about designing this program, I thought ... it would be so wonderful if we could allow students to attend classes during the evening so they can maintain their full-time jobs during the day. We can offer this position to folks who are really passionate about the trade, because you have to be passionate even to get through that first year, right?”
McCabe offered a note of caution when individuals or organizations approach him and say something to the effect of, “I’ve got lots of people in my organization who would love to get a job as a carpenter.”
McCabe, ever diplomatically, points out that being a union carpenter is more than picking up a piece of wood and taking it from one location to another. Conditions can be trying, and there’s a great deal of education that goes into the process before one ultimately becomes a journeyman.
In a closed-door meeting with his staff, he said it bluntly: “Who wants to be outside when it’s cold, four stories up, with the wind blowing in your face?” The implication is that it isn’t any easier than it is for an HVAC installer to lay ductwork in an attic during a hot Texas summer. It can be arduous work in discomforting circumstances. What he implies, of course, is that the union knows there are people who welcome this type of challenge, and the pre-apprentice program is one approach to attracting that potential talent.
Enter the NRCC’s pre-apprentice program. PRAHD has created a vetting process to ensure that candidates are serious about making the effort.
What does the pre-apprenticeship program consist of? PRAHD requires that applicants:
• be a minimum of 18 years old;
• be physically able to perform the work;
• have reliable transportation to and from the training center;
• pass a drug test and a physical test before entering the program; and
• provide a DD-214 (discharge papers), if a veteran.
The essence of the pre-apprentice program is that it exposes them to a portion of the carpentry curriculum and gives each candidate a snapshot of a carpenter’s life. The program meets weekly at the local union training center for two sessions of two hours each. When the candidates compile 400 hours, they take a test, and if they pass, they can enter the full-fledged apprenticeship program. In the past two years, PRAHD has spoken about the program to 350 persons. Of that number, they offered a training slot to 91 individuals, contingent upon them passing the basic requirements for entry, with 10 entering the program. (For a sense of scale, PRAHD has contact with about 17,000 people annually.)
The pre-apprenticeship program is working, but are the numbers crushing? No, they’re not. And though no one is saying it outright, there is a belief that successful candidates who matriculate to the full-fledged apprentice carpenter program will become acolytes and the best example of why others should contemplate the carpentry trade.
“Will it work elsewhere?” is the fundamental question others in different trades, such as the HVACR industry, might consider. What is virtually incontrovertible is the lack of candidates coming into almost all the trades. Leaving aside one’s personal feelings about unions, it’s whether the process, designed by the CCT and PRAHD, can be duplicated in other trades.
Several components of the CCT-PRAHD pre-apprentice program have laid the groundwork for success. McCabe and Lopez knew each other for years and had developed a level of trust. They also understood how these programs operate and that there is often initial enthusiasm, but then it fizzles because there isn’t a specific person to shepherd the process beyond an exuberant start.
The carpenters had the institutional framework, a well-established training program and center, and Lopez had the numbers — a broad swath of the community from which to potentially draw and a manager for the program to help keep accepted candidates on track.
They also had patience. Again, McCabe and Lopez were unafraid of, and indeed appeared to welcome steady, slow progress that would result in success.
In McCabe’s case, he had the backing of his 40,000-plus carpenter and contractor organization. He had the reputation of the carpenter’s skill level. He had an organization that took raw talent and desire, and after they had graduated from the apprentice program, they reached the level of journeyman. (Apprentices receive both classroom instruction and hands-on training for four or five years before becoming a journeyman carpenter.) As McCabe points out, “Apprentices earn while they learn, and no one gets stuck with college debt.”
Both had the institutional support that meshed well with their goals. McCabe is both pragmatist and idealist. He will tell you that his job is to expand man hours and market share for carpenters. And it’s his job to entice or at least garner interest with the message to the builder and developer community that working with union carpenters in the 21st century is different from the past. You will often see the word “partnership” in the union’s literature. But he also sees a bigger cause. In a private meeting, he said: “We should do this [the pre-apprenticeship program] because it’s the right thing to do.” He says it frequently, referring to the fact that whatever end of the political spectrum one might espouse, it’s an honorable cause to help fellow citizens who want to improve their station in society. PRAHD, by its very nature, swims in similar waters. Both McCabe and Lopez repeatedly point out that their efforts are not a handout and assist those who have exhibited some interest in the carpentry trade.
There is also a degree of self-interest. If this program’s success continues, and as word spreads, other will try to duplicate it. (Lopez has already received inquiries from noncarpenter unions expressing an interest.) This will transform a different urgency in the recruitment effort because the trades, such as the HVACR industry, could be competing against the carpenters or other trades for seemingly the same pool of candidates, especially those who are interested in a trade without knowing specifically which one.
To the proverbial outsider looking in, what you see is a real workforce in action: Identifying potential candidates, offering them a realistic opportunity, creating a pathway with guidance and adding to the number of people in the trades at a time of near-critical shortfall. While some lament, others scold, and a few offer hypothetical macroeconomic solutions to the workforce issues that the trades face, McCabe and Lopez are in the trenches. They’re doing the heavy lifting of solving problems on their turf, one potential carpenter at a time.
Let’s look elsewhere. It’s a thought of mine that persists after reading an article written by our management expert Frank Hurtte, who insists that no industry should shy away from copying “best practices” that exist in other fields. Sometimes those industries are related; other times, they’re completely different. That raises the key question, “Is the practice or tactic something that I can duplicate?”
While searching for a fresh approach for this workforce section, I discovered several organizations in central New Jersey that hit upon a shockingly smart idea. They created a program that combines the goals of both organizations while directly addressing a shortage issue in the U.S. workforce. While they are in the carpentry sector of the construction business, the struggle of finding, recruiting, training and keeping talent is remarkably similar to workforce issues in the HVACR industry. This article is not only about how well they did. It’s meant as a lesson plan for all of us, because I believe we can duplicate their approach in the HVACR industry.