Rarely is anything in life or business accomplished in one dramatic and immediate event or effort. More often is the accumulation of many small efforts over time. Desire and ambition are fine, but without persistence and determination, they accomplish nothing. No place on earth more famously represents man’s ambition, persistence and determination than the efforts to scale the highest peak on the planet, Mount Everest.
Last year my wife Susan and I undertook a high altitude trek to Everest Base Camp. It is located in a very remote section of the country of Nepal. The trek, nothing compared to the extreme efforts of the professional Everest climbers, took us to a final altitude of 18,500+ feet. It was very cold, with primitive conditions. It was arduous and challenging. With the support of our Sherpa guides we spent several weeks slowly ascending and acclimating. It took many small steps to the reward of seeing one of the most spectacular sights in the entire world. It was daunting to see the black rock monolith of Everest towering at 29,029 feet above us, actually up in the 180 mph jet stream, with snow blasting off the peak miles, across the sky. It was hard to imagine the next 10,000 small steps that would take the serious climbers to the edge of life and death and back.
I use this example as an analogy for the challenges faced by our industry. There are 10,000 steps ahead for the union construction industry; upward to ultimate success or downward into irrelevance and oblivion.
The fate of union construction lies in the ability of labor and management to continue pushing change forward. As you cannot run up Everest, neither can we expect immediate changes and visible results with regards to the major challenges facing union construction. However, just because our structure and relationships do not always promote rapid change, it does not affect the absolute necessity of bold action. What are these daunting challenges that should be motivating change in our industry?
More sophisticated and qualified competition
Growing competitive delta between union and open shops
Predicted consistent escalation of benefit costs
Imminent retirement of Baby Boomer craft leaders
Diminishing geographic/market relevance
Necessity of union structural consolidations and leveraging of economies of scale
Ability to attract new owner clients and new union contractors
As in a serious climb, there are many routes to the same place, but standing still is not an option. On Everest, many climbers die, or are even left behind, because they simply could not move forward. It is a brutal response to a brutal environment – but when survival is on the line, talk is cheap and action is paramount.
On Everest even more climbers perish because they did not recognize the turnaround point. This is where you have to calculate the speed of your climb versus the necessity of turning around to return safely. The too slow climber that does not realize it plays with death. Like a climber ascending too slowly, our industry has not changed quickly enough. Status quo has been enough for many, and now, as the obvious risks become apparent, finally awareness is kicking in; it’s time to get our asses in gear. That means everyone on the team; the contractors, union leaders and especially the greater mass of union craft workers have to accept and embrace an acceleration of change. Like right now. The lesson I learned years ago when I was a more serious climber is relevant today; you cannot move any faster than the slowest guy on your rope, but there can come a point where waiting for the other guy can really put you at risk. Here is the bottom line – we cannot go back and wait for another time to climb our mountain. We cannot wait for better weather. We cannot come back next year. And we cannot quit. This is it.
As in a quest for Everest, patience, resolve and determination are the building blocks for success. It is sometimes hard to find satisfaction or even enjoyment in the grind of each small step, but it is the foundation of any organization reaching for the summit of their ambitions. In this process there will always be major challenges, serious discomfort and even moments of doubt. Beyond this though is the realization that success is almost always worth the price. It is my sincere hope that the leaders of our industry understand not only the extreme challenges of the climb ahead, but also the dire consequences of delay. In summary, for our industry, there are no shortcuts to the top.
I’m sure that some people will disagree with the past tense in the title of this article…but in recognition of my previous sins, omissions and stupidity in the area of safety, I will confirm my idiot status. Years later, I did finally figure it out, proving that even the dumbest horse can be led to water and made to drink. But the stories noted below are true. They are from a two year period (many years ago) when I put myself through school working construction in downtown San Francisco. The company is long out of business. Big surprise.
I was twenty, immortal and clueless. I hefted the Sawzall again and began cutting the tenth pipe that day. The pipe wrapping exploded in a cloud of white dust and powder. It covered me as the blade bit into the steel. Sweating in the crawl space, in my paper dust mask, I cut those pipes for weeks on end as we did the demo and conversion on an old San Francisco tenement hotel. And at the end of those days, I looked like Casper the Ghost covered head to toe in white dust and powder. Just another construction guy doing his job. Except that the dust I was wearing and breathing was mostly asbestos. Know what? If someone had told me that, I probably would have kept doing it anyway.
Safety in the field is not about company rules, programs, training or OSHA. Safety in the field is fundamentally about influencing BEHAVIORS. Safety, when it comes down to it, is mostly about the individual worker selecting the appropriate behaviors in concert with his or her own interests as well as the company’s. You can give workers the information and tools all day long but if you can’t shape behavior, then you cannot create a safe jobsite. In my experience, you have to craft these behaviors; they do not appear on their own.
I dipped the steel wool in a canister of industrial JASCO paint stripper. Nasty stuff, thick and poisonous as napalm. Cloth gloves soaking through. Respirator with two month old filters, foam dust mask or sometimes just a bandanna. Stripping three coats of paint off 50 old hardwood doors. Stuff stank up an entire floor of the job. Just another construction guy doing his job. I knew it couldn’t be good for me but why do something different if no one tells me why.
There are many barriers to effective safety and injury prevention. The macho construction image. Poor pre-job planning. Employee denial. The “It won’t happen to me mentality”. No employer driven rewards or consequences. Every year scores of workers die in our industry and many more are injured. Some of these are flukes but many more of them are workers who made a bad judgment call, engaged in risky behaviors and ended paying the consequences. So who then is the person most able to influence these jobsite behaviors? The individual worker and his or her foreman.
I was stripping lath and plaster off of a ceiling that was just out of reach. I used the second to-the-top step on the ladder; the one that is labeled “This is Not a Step.” I believe the term to describe me at that time would definitely be “idiot”. With a twelve foot fall I only bounced once but the crew got a laugh out of it. I was both an idiot and a construction crew foreman doing his job. Setting a great example.
In the 1990s I taught many safety courses for construction field personnel. Over 3,000 students in all. In each class, I would ask them to anonymously write down the stupidest most unsafe thing they ever did on a jobsite and put it in a box. The responses were very scary. After lunch I would read the worst and finally nominate The Stupidest Guy in the Class. They loved it. But what I learned, after talking to hundreds of students, was that they KNEW they were not doing the right thing but THEY DID IT ANYWAY and that EVERY STUDENT HAD DONE IT AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER. It wasn’t ignorance or lack of training or anything else. There was just no compelling reason to do it differently, so they didn’t. So the real question is: can you as a trainer, up-front, provide that compelling reason?
Mike could not get the exact cut he wanted on his saw. So he pulled up the safety guard. Again. Like lots of guys did. Like I did. I was standing right there. Didn’t say a thing. Dull blades kick back. I knew it. He knew it. Combined with the open guard it was no wonder that after it kicked, it sliced right through his thigh. The wound was deep and nasty. But you know, guys still had their safety guards up the same week. I changed my blade; but that’s about all.
Training and apprenticeship programs can only do so much for influencing key behaviors. There is a difference between having a Safety Program and implementing one. There is a difference between having a set of rules and policies and enforcing them. There is a difference between telling the hands that safety is a competitive issue and rewarding them for it. To create safety as a profit center takes proactive contractor involvement in providing clear rewards and consequences. It takes setting up safety as a non-negotiable value system for a company and thus an industry.
All this is just fluff without the tools and resources to make it happen. But more importantly, the coordinated determination, willpower and discipline to change the values and behaviors that will dictate results. Everything begins and ends with attitudes and behaviors. The training centers and instructors do an outstanding job at forming the values and standards, but the contractors need to implement and reinforce effectively. Otherwise we’ll just end up with a bunch of boys (and girls) behaving badly; at our industry’s expense and their own. Take it from me. A reformed idiot.
There are two days in the course of an apprenticeship program that are the most important.
Do you know what they are?
These are the first and last days that a student experiences. The reason that these are so important is that they serve as portals into the future. These days, more than any others, should serve to reinforce new levels of expectations, as they continue their journey of professional development.
The first day of apprenticeship is the opportunity to set the bar of expectations for commitment, performance and accountability. It is not about the “rules” of the program. It is about the values and norms that the organization requires of its members. The first day should scare off at least one student. The first day should include journeymen and foremen telling the apprentices about their experiences and what is expected of a top craft professional. The first day should require every apprentice to write down why they are there, what they are committed to contributing and reading it out to everyone else in the class. The first day is when the class is split into crews and where the group’s performance will now become a part of the overall success engine of the program.
The first day sets the expectations for years to come.
On the other end of the experience is the last day. Thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars have now been spent on the development of the apprentice. His or her time for payback has come. The last day should focus on the pursuit of a legacy career. It should be heavy on the apprentices talking about what they are going to do to put a positive imprint on the industry and their peers. It should be about how they are going to integrate mentoring and coaching into their efforts with the next crop of apprentices. It should revisit the most difficult obstacles to success that have been overcome and the avenues of inspiration that were used to do so. Having spoken at many apprentice graduation programs, I have seen that the last day is also one of deep personal pride and self-esteem. It is an opportunity for reflection on personal potential, and the payoff for discipline and focus.
The last day sets the expectations for a career, and the industry’s future.
These two days are about resetting the compass. The direction of an apprentice’s life is changing, whether they know it or not. The accelerating pace of change of the industry is one big challenge. The fierce challenge of the competition is the other. Apprentices, as the foundation of the future, must meet these head on.
On the first day, the last day, and every day in between.
Graduation from a top performing union apprenticeship program is the equivalent of graduation from any junior college and many four year institutions. It melds technical and practical learning; provides payment for the duration and escalates the market worth of the student in visible and immediate ways. This preparation will lead to earnings over a 25 year career that will range between a million and two million dollars. In short, it is a hell of a deal. So how many apprentices really understand and appreciate the opportunity they have been given? Not many, I think.
These same students are being instructed by top craftsmen who otherwise could almost always make much more money if they decided to continue to work in the field; particularly those that would be in supervision. Selfless and dedicated, these instructors did not just wash up on the beach. They made a conscious choice to teach and help others at their own expense. How many apprentices understand the personal and financial commitment being made towards their success?
These are just a couple of examples of opportunities we have to both sell the value of apprenticeship and get the students to realize the opportunity that lays before them. It is a regular occurrence that apprentices write an email to me after one of my presentations exclaiming how they really never understood how they fit into the picture; or what was at risk or the true upside of their career opportunity. Beyond the students are the barriers of career counselors, parents and teachers who often still have a totally unrealistic view that everyone should be on the college track and that the trades are not suitable for a career destination. When people don’t get it, we lose. It seems more important than ever to tell our story effectively.
What are some ways to create a more comprehensive picture of apprenticeship and its benefits overall? Well here are a few:
Host community events at the training center. Allow non-profits, schools and the community to utilize common areas during underutilized times. Seeing firsthand the training infrastructure will make a big impression.
Review the career pyramid with first step apprentices. Show them the upward mobility of time, earning and opportunity in our industry. Right from the start we want to fire their ambitions.
If your program provides college credits for apprentice courses, let everyone know that. Many programs now have the ability to sell a trade, a career and college credit – a very potent package that may attract a different profile of candidate.
Utilize social media to tell your training story – especially You Tube. Right now do a search on your craft or Local Union on You Tube. See if what comes up promotes the best part of your organization – don’t be surprised if it alarms or dismays you instead. In today’s world your website should have streaming video, testimonials and all the key benefits of your training program, apprenticeship and the union.
Union apprenticeship is the best kept educational secret in North America. Let’s shine a light on it for what it is – for the student, the industry and the community.
The term “hitting the wall” is used in a lot of different situations. But mostly when it is used, the common reference point is that someone has given their all and is facing a physical or psychological barrier. It seems like it describes a barrier that tells them to quit. You hear it in sports all the time. But last month was the first time I heard it in reference to apprenticeship.
The training professional that used the term did so casually – like he had been using it for a long time. I asked him what he meant and he explained. “We teach the apprentices, support them, encourage them and do everything we can to make them successful. Then they go out to work with the journeymen and a good number of them hit the wall. Then that’s it.” I did not have to ask what he meant – I knew what he was talking about. Many apprentices will face some discouragement, interpersonal challenges, hazing, isolation, lack of support, lack of instruction, or even just indifference. Being low man on the jobsite food chain can be very uncomfortable. The field can sometimes be a tough proving ground. It can shake the conviction of even a strong young person; and make them ask if they made the right decision in becoming a professional tradesman or woman. It can also cause others to give up entirely.
But our training proving ground should not be one where our young talent is tossed to the lions – or placed on teams where he or she must sort out their own solutions. Theoretically the person best suited to help the apprentice navigate their initial years should not be the training staff, but the foremen. This is sometimes wishful thinking as most foremen don’t have either the time or inclination to be a “big brother” to the new kid on the jobsite. Therefore the responsible thing to do as training experts is prepare them for the real life challenges they are going to face in the field. And the best way to do that is to integrate “real life” role playing exercises into their training.
Of all the materials I have created for apprentices, the most positive reviews came from the role playing exercises provided in the Survival of the Fittest lesson plans. Students reported that when they could see, hear and discuss key issues that they might face on a jobsite it gave them more confidence and better coping strategies. It was also reported to be the most fun and interesting part of classroom training. What the role playing became for them was a ladder to scale the walls that otherwise might stand in the way of their personal or professional development.
What kinds of difficult situations might apprentices face that would be worthy of role playing and discussion? How about these as a starting place:
How would you ask for help from an obviously busy journeyman?
What would you do on a job where your journeyman co-worker told you to slow down to preserve the job?
How would you handle someone giving you a bad time because you are the apprentice?
What would you do if you saw someone at work putting company tools in their trunk?
How would you handle seeing someone hassled because of their race or gender?
What would you do if the guy you were assigned to work with was under the influence?
What kinds of situations do you need to handle for yourself? When should you go to your foreman?
How could you help resolve conflict between co-workers?
These are just a small sample of the kinds of issues that apprentices might likely face. Putting them in a group and having two students play the roles makes it real – real life. If they don’t have a strong foundation of “real life” knowledge to work from, they might just seek the path of least resistance – and learn lessons that are very difficult to undo.
Some old school guy’s think that “hitting the wall” is what is necessary to screen out the people who don’t belong in our industry. That you have to grind on the young people to see if they can hack it. While some of that may be true, it is a very expensive way to screen talent. If a program spends ten thousand dollars a year per apprentice, having 20-30% of those candidates drop out in the first couple of years ends up costing millions of dollars. Beyond this, if young talent is getting run off or their attitudes eroded, that also has a hidden cost that we can ill afford.
This industry is not for everyone. It is not for the weak. It is not for the lazy. It is not for the uncommitted. It is not for those without some backbone. But with all that, we deserve to give every apprentice every opportunity to succeed. And that includes helping them understand the dynamic and challenging environment they have chosen for their career. Hitting the wall may be the place that a man or woman finds out who they really are – but getting them ready for real life on the jobsite may be your greatest legacy as their teachers, mentors and guides.