At Sheet Metal Workers Local 124 training center in Oklahoma City, training director Trent London was tired of hearing “I’m just a sheet metal worker” from apprentices as an excuse for some students’ unprofessional behavior.
Sheet metal and HVAC construction workers are professionals — and apprentices needed to start seeing themselves that way, London said.
“That’s what we’re trying to erase,” London said. “It should be, ‘I’m a professional, and I need to look and dress like one.’ We want them to think about what they do today as having an effect on their ability to get hired.”
To change the students’ mentality, the center hired consultant Nic Bittle.
Bittle, who owns consulting firm Workforce Pro, helps those not in managerial or leadership positions create an entrepreneurial mindset for better performance on — and off — the job.
The idea: to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the apprentices and apprentice program and fill the need for professional development, which includes written and verbal communication in the workplace, personal appearance and managing personal finances. The program started as a test in January 2013 and has evolved since then. The goal is to have all apprentices participate through the years of their education.
Before starting, Bittle spent two weeks researching the industry and visiting contractors and apprentices on jobsites and in sheet metal fabrication shops in the area.
He identified four core competencies he felt lacked in many apprentices: communication, leadership, entrepreneurship and professionalism.
To handle the problems, Bittle hosted a seminar at the beginning of the semester and followed up with a 24-part series of lessons by email. Apprentices were required to talk about the topics tackled during the lessons, which are again addressed during a second seminar in the second half of the school year.
“Because I was the outside guy, the apprentices were willing to talk to me,” Bittle said. “My hope is they implement it into their lives and use it. We’re not building better buildings. We’re building better people. They’re going to be better when they turn out. But they’ll also be better husbands and fathers. That’s what gets me excited.”
The program is about to finish its first full school year, but London said it’s still too early to tell exactly how much headway is being made with apprentices.
“Our committee thinks it could be a few years until they see a definite change,” he added. “I’ve heard people say they’ve gotten something out of it. It’s something our committee, the contractors that employ these people, thinks (the apprentices) need.”
The idea for the program came directly from the contractor members of the training committee. They found that although their work was often good, many apprentices lacked professional skills. During his research, Bittle found many apprentices felt they should be judged by the quality of their sheet metal forming — not their attitudes, communication skills or leadership qualities.
Bittle introduced to apprentices the idea of a “reputation score,” to gauge how they are viewed from jobsite to jobsite, contractor to contractor.
“If you’re difficult on the jobsite, the next boss will likely hear about it,” Bittle said. “Everybody has a reputation score. You have a reputation the minute you enter the union. And it’s how you manage your reputation score. Their job is part of it, but so is their professionalism. You can’t look up your score, but you’ve got one.”
Bringing in Bittle was a way to allow the apprentices to speak and think freely, saying what they felt they needed to say without worrying about what their instructors, coordinator or committee would think. Changes in the way the training center staff communicates with the apprentices have already been made based on Bittle’s conversations with the students, London said.
“I think it’s really opened us up to a lot more communication between the apprentices and the committee,” he said. “It’s given the apprentices more of a voice.”
Because of his success in Oklahoma City, the training center in Tulsa, Okla., also hired Bittle, who started a similar program there in January. In Tulsa, 90 percent of the apprentices are younger than 25.
“The younger generation’s time is more valuable to them than their job or money,” said Arthur Winters, the part-time training director for Sheet Metal Workers Local 270’s training center in Tulsa. “It wasn’t like that for my generation. For us, it was all about the job. I’m hoping this will help them prepare for their futures and approach their lives a different way. If we can make a difference in even a few lives, it’ll be well worth the effort.”
Not every apprentice appreciates the program, but for now, London and Bittle are satisfied.
“There’s a handful that thinks this is junk,” Bittle said. “I’m not saying I’m the last person on the planet who understands integrity and personal finance. We have really good kids. Not everyone is a fan of it, but I’m OK with that.” It’s a four-year thing. It’s a long process.”
“Right now, the plan is to keep this going, build the relationship and put this food for thought into their heads to put more value in their careers,” London said.
This article and its images were supplied by the Sheet Metal Workers union-affiliated International Training Institute. For reprints of this article, contact Renee Schuett at (248) 786-1661 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.