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.
Sat, 19 Mar 2011
Filed under: Motivation,Union Construction — Tags: anti-union, Breslin Strategies, changing labor union perception, construction industry, labor, labor movement, Mark Breslin, organized labor, right-to-work, union construction, union market share — Mark Breslin @ 10:13 AM
This week in California, considered the bluest of the blue states, polls indicated that over 40% of people favored restricting or eliminating collective bargaining for public sector employees. Now first, the concept of collective bargaining is more a stated right than most of the population could ever imagine. It has shaped the national conscience and provided the economic backbone for the middle class. But I bet that the people polled likely had no idea what collective bargaining even was just two months ago. Now the national discussion is just about money, cost and the perception of entitlement. The powerful forces pressing this message are winning over the moderates in this country who are buying into the dated and stereotypical images of unions and union members. The events of the last three months must be the call for labor to tell its story of value and humanity in a compelling manner. This is labor’s last stand; Winning the Hearts and Minds of America.
No less than a dozen states right now have legislation to restrict or eliminate prevailing wages or promote right-to-work.
Courtesy of LaborNotes.org
Many cities that our union contractors bid to in California are now eliminating prevailing wage from the bidspecs; several cities have now (ABC driven) legislatively prohibited PLAs. Even worse is the fact that the public really doesn’t have a clue as to the underlying conditions or economic framework of union construction. Here we have guys working maybe 9 or 10 months a year. Families often on the edge of qualifying for their benefits. And yet the opposition only cites the excessive wage and fringe package and the comparative analysis against the non union costs. We need to tell our story better and tell it now. Contractors have to understand how their relationship with their union has either a positive or negative impact on their ability to bid to various clients. And we cannot allow inaccurate or tainted views to dictate business decisions. I can give a recent personal example.
A very large contracting firm retained me to do a keynote speech for their leadership program. A short interval prior to the program I received a panicky call from a senior VP letting me know they were cancelling. Upon further inquiry I discovered that the CEO felt I had too close of ties to organized labor and would therefore not be credible. If the quality of ideas cannot overcome the negativity of perception, we are in more trouble than we think.
As to the ongoing debate nationally about unions and public vs. private sector, I have angered some people for even bringing up the potential differences in challenges for public vs. private. I totally agree that solidarity is a powerful tool in labor which many died in this country to achieve, not for themselves, but for others and future generations. In fairness to their views, I guess maybe my frame of reference could be too narrow by just looking at union construction. But every week, 30-40% of the guys I talk to are out of work, some up to a year on the bench. I grew up in a very difficult financial situation myself. I know exactly how it feels. These guys can’t wait for some national debate to solve their issues; no one is protesting for them; they just need to be working now. And non-union workers are most often doing their work. This is a really different set of problems than the issues that public sector union members are facing. Both are critical, but the solutions and strategies and timelines are very different. One common solution though is to tell a powerful story through the media. On one hand, if labor collectively goes for the “Heart and Minds” campaign (in addition to the usual political efforts) there will be many more resources and people to push it. Perhaps “Union Yes” has worn out its cycle. Might I suggest “Union Value”, showing who the union movement really is; just people. This is the alternative. Let’s remind people that you can get more when you pay more. Despite already having worked on campaigns like this for a decade, many construction unions are still on the edge of survival. New York City is now less than 50% union. Most areas across the nation are over 80% non-union. These are do or die issues: How can, if at all, the public sector unions help them in return if they lend their time, voice and money? Can that solidarity run both ways and provide help to union construction?
Today my picture showed up in the New York Times, speaking at a recent program. I’ve come a long way from the days of doing dozens of pro bono programs for like 20 guys when no one cared or listened. The article described the challenges facing the tens of thousands of NYC contractors and union members, the same damn challenges that I have been talking about in Alberta, Seattle, Georgia, L.A. Denver, Boston, Vegas, Oklahoma and the rest of this country and Canada. If we could only, for once, get ahead of the curve. . . But what I remember most about that NY presentation was the new apprentices sitting down in front – enthusiastic, curious and cynical – and I felt like the old man shouting into the wind, part of the message lost because it is still unpopular or not compelling enough. Union construction is worth saving. Those apprentices should not be working at Home Depot in ten years because we blew it. No, it is going to be about tapping the “Hearts and Minds” of the many. Of the public. Of legislators. Of business leaders. Of the union leaders. Of the union contractors, and most of all, of the guys waiting for their opportunity to do the work and take care of their families. The time to tell our value story is now.
Sat, 05 Mar 2011
Filed under: Leadership,Motivation,Union Construction — Tags: Breslin Strategies, construction industry, economic crisis, leadership development, Mark Breslin, organized labor, trade unions, union entitlements, union market share — Mark Breslin @ 8:20 AM
South Bend has more going for it than Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish. This week, 600 people came to hear a new presentation of mine called “The Perfect Storm: Its Time to Tell the Truth”. Using the analogy of the 1991 Perfect Storm and the impact on the fishing vessel the Andrea Gail, it was probably one of the hardest hitting messages that I have put out there. Combining the market share challenges, price and competition challenges, the death of union entitlement mentality and the necessity of rapid and bold changes by contractors, unions and workers themselves, it was designed to provoke, disturb and hopefully motivate.
Lastly, credit to the guys there. They were the most professional looking group I have seen for at least a year. Not one pair of sagging jeans, hip hop do rags, hoodies indoors etc. That’s the Mid-West for you. Solid citizens.
Local 172 Union Members Attending "It's Time to Tell the Truth" Presentation
Here is their March Newsletter article that gives an excellent summary of the evening. Thank you to all of the sponsors, including St. Joe Valley PHCC and Local 172 for giving me the opportunity!
March 2011 St. Joe Valley PHCC Newsletter
Mark Breslin, one of the country’s leading labor/management experts, spoke to about 600 people at Century Center Thursday in what was possibly the largest gathering of rank and file members in the history of this area.
Breslin compared the current economic crisis and the effect it has had on labor unions to “The Perfect Storm” marked by a fight for survival amid rogue 100-foot waves not so different from the 1991 storm off the east coast depicted in the movie of the same name.
He commented that currently Chicago is the only city in the country with more union than non-union work. “Thirty years ago we owned the ocean,” he said. With the recent unrest across the Midwest as collective bargaining rights are jeopardized, he said that there could not be a better time to talk about these controversial but important issues. “A lot of people would be happier if our boat sank,” he added. He said non-union market share nationally is at 87 percent.
He spent time discussing the evolution of this change and the factors that brought us here. It did not happen overnight and many of the trends were ignored along the way, he said.
“The Perfect Storm: It’s Time to Tell the Truth” was presented for the first time Thursday. Breslin said he put it together as a result of the St. Joe Valley PHCC approaching him to speak on the column he had written called “It’s Time to Tell the Truth.”
The presentation was sponsored by MACIAF, Local 172 Labor/Management Committee, St. Joe Valley PHCC, the National PHCC, National PHCC Educational Foundation, and the UAC. Thank you so much to all the sponsors. It was great being part of such a collaborative effort.
Breslin does not mince words and directed suggestions for change to both union members and contractors. Some of the suggestions for contractors included:
• Coaching, training and mentoring should replace the idea that apprentices need to be “toughened up”. The comment that “you are not paid to think” should be thrown overboard. He said those antiquated beliefs cost contractors money.
• Contractors must teach their employees about business and business issues if they want to prosper. He said union workers are not blue collar tradesmen anymore but business partners. That means sharing information about costs and jobs like never before – trusting your employees with information. He advocates professional leadership management courses to increase professionalism.
• You need to tell your employees how many jobs you tried to get and how many you actually got. Your employees are a part of your team and they should be working towards daily goals set by the contractor. He said there are union members who think that contractors earn 50 percent profit on jobs!
• As the baby boomers retire in droves, the next generations of workers will soon be taking over the businesses and seeing that you get your pension. Are these workers trained to do that? Are they getting the education necessary to handle the responsibility? Breslin said he mentors five young men, including an injured Iraq war veteran and does not do it to be a do-gooder but to make a difference in their futures. He encouraged all contractors to do the same.
• Use the UA Standard For Excellence to get rid of employees who should not be representing the industry. He said contractors cannot afford substandard performance if they want to survive.
• The labor/management blame game is not productive. Breslin said the problems today are not between the union and the contractors but should be directed at examining the person who writes the check – the owners who pay for the new stadium or the next new development. He added that those problems are not resolved at the bargaining table.
Breslin concluded with the comment that change is very hard to accomplish but in this case necessary to surviving the storm that is raging around us. “Not everyone wants to be on board,” he said. “Not everyone wants to change.” He said you should concentrate on getting the middle 60 percent of workers to move up to the 20 percent “top performers.” The bottom 20 percent cannot be reached.
“…In a storm everyone comes together. You have to trust each other, from the contractor to the foreman to the journeymen.”
Last week, I posed an interesting inquiry to the Facebook community that garnered a great deal of attention:
“I just read a blog that stated that the Great Depression invigorated the labor movement, but the Great Recession is crippling it. Others say this is the beginning of the end. Thoughts on that?”
I received some very insightful responses that I feel are worth sharing. Do you have anything to add? Feel free to comment and contribute to the discussion.
“I think we need to start over. The babyboomers are on there way out and genX is gonna take the wheel. Maybe we should start from the beginning. Lower the pay rate, even though some of us that work hard don’t deserve that. For instance: I’d rather work 40 weeks a year, at $10 less an hour, then work 15 weeks at a higher rate. Nobody’s is going like that idea, but we have to start somewhere. I know we can’t change the past but the future hasn’t been written yet… Someone needs to pick up a pen.” – Thomas
“The Great Depression was handled as that, a crippling event of the economy, hurting the whole country. Actions were taken simply because they needed to. Current government has no time to concern themselves with the common man anymore.” - Jenn
“Well Mark, I’m a Union Organizer, and one thing I’m sure of is that we can’t sit around and wait for it to get better, we have to get better AT IT! If anything is ending, it had better be our complacency and our “we can’t organize with no work” excuses. Opportunities are everywhere, in every environment, and if we don’t take them, someone else will.” – Jeremy
“With the right plan we can move into the future but in AB we talk a lot but no one moves. Not funny. We had a good meeting in Sept but still no movement – not good.” – Shane
“I would agree with Jenn. Mark, we have talked about this before. During the Great Depression EVERYONE was flat on their ass, so people came together, demanded better living standards, and sent people to D.C. to do the work of the people. when was the last time you heard that? Unions were the voice of the people back then. Standing up against 16 hour work days 7 day work weeks. The exploitation of child labor, etc. Unions need to be the voice of ALL working people today as well, but with infighting and raiding of other unions, we can’t mount the charge that we really need to be mounting against the right or should I say wrong, when we’re battling each other. Today, working America has never been through or part of the struggles of the 30′s and 40′s, like our parents and grandparents. One day unions will prosper again, but,EVERYONE needs to be flat on their ass, wanting to change the status quo. Getting away from the country club mentality of I GOT MINE is a must!!” - IBEW New Orleans
“The construction industry is resetting itself, and some of the trades are facing irrelevance and insolvency. The organizing principles are the same as in the great depression, but the organizing model has to resonate with this time and context. And the construction unions have to disband their circular firing squad for any hope of survival.” – John
“I disagree with John……irrelevance is in the eye of the beholder. The word Labor Union implies who should be involved and most of all who is not those that perform the Labor. With a smaller universe of work to control creates the optimum time for Labor Unions to gain marketshare coming out of this downturn. Don’t be fooled we will come out of this and the real question is have your old ways gotten in the way or are you in a position to grasp this opportunity. The key to the labor movements success was never a good contract it has always been the strength of the members and the ability to secure the work with there help.” – Buddy
“The Great Recession is no accident…As far as the construction unions go.. Its all about the property owners and the general contractors profiting. Non-union is cheaper,naturally they will thrive more than ever during a recession.Back then during the Great Depression…There was more of a movement within the U.S. to get employment going because of ww2. That war created jobs and strengthened workers in the middle class.Therefore making labor unions stronger. I think what we are going through now is caused by trading and big banks on wall street. As a local 638 steamfitter in NYC we need wall street to be happy..Just as Vegas thrives on gambling..new york thrives on wall street. NYC wouldnt be where it is today in construction wihtout bankers on wall street. This ”great recession” is basically a plateau in the financial world.Who knows if it will go up or down from this point. Mark, I was at your presentation in midtown a few months back…As a second year apprentice in 638..yes, There is no doubt !I do my best everyday.WE need more than being the best.638 fitters are the best.. UNIONS NEED a revolution!or at least some real political influence…We need politicians to have our backs in nyc…god knows what plan B is…………” – Brandon
“Buddy, your comment – labor movement success depends on the strength of the members – is the bottom line. Not just strength in numbers, but members having a strong philosophical attachment to their unions and what they stand for. Unfortunately, there are too many of them that are disconnected in this way. Like IBEW New Orleans said, no one active in labor these days has ever struggled – TRULY struggled – in the way people did many decades ago that created such outrage that it motivated the masses to take action. If the new congressional conservatives have their way, we might just see American society reach that level of outrage again.” – Heather
“Some good comments. The one thing I see is that all the unions are not working for the good of the all. We fight, we raid each other, this is the time to stand together. Respect each trade as is and work together unions, contractors and owners. We also have to stop all our members from working for the other side.” – Shane
Great to see passionate and articulate debate on the issue. I cannot imagine that a depressed economy generally assists organizations that are sold on value vs. price as union construction is generally presented. In a tough economy people start thinking very short term; survival mode and many things including relationships, value propositions, long term objectives and similar sometimes get lost on the side of the road. On the other hand, tough challenges generally wake people up to the futility of the status quo. For sure, not only labor but the construction industry is going to have to evolve very rapidly because resources on both the public and private side are diminished and thus owners are going to be very concerned about things like productivity and cost to value.
Finally, there is also the generational shift occurring concurrent with this economic challenge, and the younger people are keenly aware of the necessity of respecting tradition where it makes sense – and shit-canning legacy bullshit ideas and practices left over from “back in the day”. They are the engine for revitalization of the construction industry (and the labor movement in general) as soon as they are empowered and ready to take the mantle. The economy is accelerating that process.
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I am hearing again about another round of economic stimulus checks being sent out in 2011. Wait – what? You know, the ones that are paid from taxpayer dollars and then given back to the taxpayers to be spent at Walmart or the Toyota dealership. Remind me again – exactly whose economy and what country are we trying to help? Did we did not learn our lesson yet?
The idea that “refunded” public sector money can be spent in three hundred dollars increments so that people will buy that new Ipod or flatscreen or Timmy’s Iron Man backpack is simply lame and unsustainable. Every single dollar that is going into these types of schemes should be directed at creating something of real value – infrastructure construction jobs. It stimulates OUR economy, creates sorely needed capital improvements, improves quality of life for entire communities, creates jobs HERE in the U.S., and can ramp up faster than any other industry.
What seems to be lacking in our economic recovery is a strategic model focused on delivery rather than rhetoric. Dems got hammered because they thought they had a left leaning mandate (and took their eye off the economic ball). Republicans are still DOA on the popularity chart but got a boost only because there is no alternative. Can we awaken them to a solution? Do you think that the mighty construction industry, employing millions of workers, and perhaps the powerhouse of our economy, should be heard from?
If political activism (not red or blue state) that is PRO construction was to tap into the millions of skilled tradesmen who perform the work (of which 30-40% are currently unemployed), it could be a political tidal wave. Politically engaged and energized, awakened from apathy – like soccer moms (except with beards and hammers) they could take over the this country, redirect focus on construction and manufacturing, and turn this economy around.
Wishful thinking or unfulfilled potential? You tell me.