PHCC ORSB's 'Work Ready' program gives youngsters a taste of the trades
It’s a figure quoted frequently. For every four plumbers who leave the trade, there’s only one new plumber coming onboard. That translates to a serious shortage of qualified plumbing pros in the near future. This urgent need is prompting a look at new ways to find the right candidates for these jobs.
The lure of a well-paying career in the trades is attracting interest from more jobseekers. The challenge for contractors can be assessing what these jobseekers bring to the table. How do you know that bright-eyed and enthusiastic young person or earnest family guy in his twenties or early thirties is right for the industry and your company? Are these the workers you’re looking for?
That’s where programs like Work Ready come in. Offered through the PHCC’s Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino chapter, Work Ready is a 40-hour, one-week course that preps recruits for joining the trade work force and gives students a realistic perspective on what these jobs entail. Class size is typically 10 top 15 students and sessions are held several times throughout the year.
Let’s say a plumbing contractor wants to take on a new employee who says he really wants to be a plumber. Instead of starting a new hire off with some form of in-house orientation or shadowing plan, that potential hire is sent to Work Ready for what amounts to boot camp, a sort of basic training to see if they have what it takes for a career in the trades.
Veteran plumber and educator Douglas Allen takes trade neophytes and job prospects through all aspects of what it takes to do a job safely and in a professional manner. Students are exposed everything from study skills to tools of the trade.
At the Southern California program, staged at the PHCC ORSB’s Anaheim training facility, Allen seems to be part drill instructor, part cheerleader and part talent scout. A plumber for more than 38 years and an educator for more than 30, he believes that what’s best for contractors today is to “build a plumber” who can do a professional job in a professional manner.
To the question, “What can someone learn in a week that will benefit the student and the employer?” Allen answers, enough to determine if they want to be a plumber and the contractor is getting someone ready and eager to learn.
If a contractor is going to invest in that employee’s training, they like to have some assurance that such an investment will pay off, Allen says. Bottom line, a hire who’s spent that week getting basic training will be better prepared to climb into the truck and head for a job site. They’ll have a good idea of how to behave, what projects they’ll see and how to safely move around the site, whether it’s unclogging a drain or deciding is a faucet should be replaced or repaired.
Work Ready combines classroom work and practical demonstrations to cover a broad subject area. Obviously, the time limitations mean not subject is discussed in depth, but students do get a solid overview of the workplace. Allen takes a “this is what we’re covering, this is what we covered, this is what you learned” approach that reinforces each subject and reminds students “this is what you know now you didn’t before.” Classes aren’t in strictly lecture format. Allen believes in walking around the classroom, encouraging discussions, testing the students’ understanding of what’s being covered.
The course looks at basic safety, job site safety, introduction to construction math, how to create an invoice for the customer, introduction to hand tools and power tools, and basic communication skills, Allen says. “Then we talk to them about what we expect of them as an employee, basic employability skills. Then there’s introduction to materials, fittings, pipes and fixtures, so that they understand some of the plumbing parts they are going to be working with.”
Take basic safety, for example. Allen gets down to the nitty gritty. Before that new hire climbs onto a truck, he’s learned the simple physics of how to place a ladder for safety and stability, what kind of safety gear he should be wearing on the job, from gloves to eye goggles, and why. In plumbing’s there’s-always-water environment, students get a primer on grounding. There’s special attention paid to working within confined spaces, something most plumbers deal with daily, from working under sinks, in small bathrooms, or into under-home crawl spaces and attics.
The class also is an introduction to tools, what the plumber needs to have in his toolbox and why, and some advice on what tools the student should be selecting and where to buy them. This section goes along with a primer on safe use of hand tools and power tools.
Classes also encompass some grounding in “construction math” which may start with something that sounds simple, learning to read a tape measure and do basic measurements. The math portion is where the students do an exercise that breaks down the components of a job and inputs them into a customer invoice. The lesson here is that being accurate in what they work is and how much time it takes is a component of the customer’s faith that you are being honest and fair with them; along with the fact that somewhere along the line, they will have to know how to value, price and bill the work.
Later in the week, there’s practical lab work. Students try their hands at cutting pipe, soldering, installing a faucet, putting in a bath tub, and installing a tub-and-shower valve.
Also in the curriculum, videos cover the history of plumbing, and “real case” views of actual jobs in real homes and businesses. As part of the customer interaction section, students learn some basics about looking and acting professional on the job, Allen says. For example, be aware of the customers’ flooring and wear booties; not dropping your tools onto the customer’s countertops or sink; or not utilizing the homeowner’s towels to mop up spilled water, unless you’re ready to spring for a new set of replacements.
Then there are some lessons in business ethics, such as how would you respond if a customer offers to pay cash under the table if you come back Saturday and do it for a discounted price? Allen relates that as young plumber, an employer would send new hires over to his aunt’s house to check out a garbage disposal that was working perfectly. If the plumber “repaired” the disposal or said he needed to replace the unit, the aunt would report back to the company and the employee would quickly be off the payroll.
One area that Work Ready emphasizes is familiarity with Universal Plumbing Codes. “I’ve had students come to class—either Work Ready or the four-year program—who’ve been working for two or three years and haven’t been working to code.” He notes it’s important to instill in new plumbers that professionalism is important, doing thing the right way is important, and doing the best job for your customers is important. “We want plumbing companies that are licensed, bonded and working to code. If you do the job right, and treat your customers with respect, the money will come. There’s plenty of work out there.”
By the end of the week, Allen says, there’s been a chance to identify strengths and weaknesses, areas where students excel and those where they may need to focus their attention to improve. A less tangible product of this basic training is a sense of confidence that, not only is this the career to which they want to commit, it’s also something that are excited about. The classes definitely weed out potential hires that just aren’t plumbing pro material. An example: the student who declared that he just wasn’t interested in doing any digging. “Since digging holes are how we get pipe into the ground….”
Mike Barker, president of Barker & Sons Plumbing and Rooter in Anaheim and a past president of PHCC California, says that his company prefers to hire applicants who want to join the PHCCs four-year program beginning with an apprenticeship. He urges contractors to look into putting their new hires into both Work Ready and the four-year program. “They may not be aware that they may not have to pay the full cost of the four-year program,” Barker says. There are scholarships available locally, from PHCC national, and increasing support from the manufacturing sector. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”
The PHCC ORSB also is in partnership with other organizations to tap into different potential job candidate pools, such as the military, where programs like Work Ready can assist them in acclimating to the civilian work environment.