Mon, 23 Jul 2012
Filed under: Lessons Learned,safety — Tags: apprentice, Breslin Strategies, changing labor union perception, college or apprenticeship, educational system, labor union, Mark Breslin, organized labor, registered apprenticeship, safety training, skilled workforce, union construction — Mark Breslin @ 12:56 PM
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.
Sat, 12 Nov 2011
Filed under: Lessons Learned,Planning Tools — Tags: apprentice, Breslin Strategies, changing labor union perception, college or apprenticeship, educational system, labor union, Mark Breslin, organized labor, registered apprenticeship, skilled workforce, union construction — Mark Breslin @ 6:34 AM
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.
Thu, 12 May 2011
Filed under: Leadership,Motivation,Planning Tools — Tags: Breslin Strategies, construction industry, labor movement, labor union, leadership challenges, leadership development, management, union market share — Mark Breslin @ 6:48 PM
I have been yelled at, criticized, shouted down, insulted, lied to and about, isolated, ignored, called names and forgotten on my birthday – all in the name of change. What’s the big deal?
If you ask, most people will tell you they want change. They will have a long list of suggested changes they believe need to be made . . . by you and by others. What you will rarely hear though are suggestions for changes that impact them personally. Change is good for everyone else, just not me. Just not right now. Well, here is a dose of reality:
- The number one reason organizations fail is the inability or unwillingness to adapt to their environment; and
- The number one reason people fail in life is the inability to change in accordance with their own best interests.
From a business standpoint, let’s try something more specific:
- Union construction has lost 70% + of market share due to an inability or unwillingness to change. Further, most other under-performing or failing industries (and leaders) have the exact same problem.
Despite these harsh realities, there are still people I run into across the U.S. and Canada who are convinced that my efforts to promote change are negative and counterproductive. They search for or invent motives to diminish my messages. I don’t blame them. Change is always a very uncomfortable state. It often breeds uncertainty, fear and anxiety. Most people’s first response to change is resistance or rejection of the idea or the messenger. The responses are often emotional ones, not rational. They are based on feelings of vulnerability, personal security – or sometimes simply ego.
Change threatens the way they see the world and perhaps how the world sees them. It happens in companies, unions and society at large. The paradox is that the world is in a constant state of change, and everyone wants positive change to benefit them. Yet few people want to risk or see beyond today, and they will often fight to preserve actions, traditions or strategies that are not in their direct best interests. The problem? They are so strongly invested that they cannot see the urgency for change. In our case, an entire industry has gone down in flames and still some cannot or will not see the urgency. It is easier to ignore, blame or deny.
But despite all this, in the responses I get from coaching CEOs down to talking to raw apprentices, most people have an inherent, if not burning, desire for change. Their fear and anxiety often comes from not knowing how. The lack of a roadmap kills their initiative. Leaders have to understand that change requires an educational process. Change requires more than policies or events or even one of my speeches or books. All of these are only singular elements of a process. This is where change initiatives often fail, in that they don’t factor time into the following process:
The fragility of change management can also be shattered by the ever-present loud and insistent voices who will shout down change, innovation or even discourse. These people are far more invested in the status quo than anyone else is interested in change, so they have a position of passion and power- even if it makes no sense whatsoever.
As I work on culture change in construction, energy, oil and gas, and other long standing industries, it becomes clear that change is nearly always promoted by the very few. Less than 10% of people meet change with excitement and anticipation. It is these people, throughout all organizations, despite job title or position, who serve as the catalysts for action. They see the urgency. They feel the untapped potential. They acknowledge the consequences. They stand up to the negative people or bad attitudes. They want something better and will not be discouraged or denied.
These brave individuals say, “I want change, innovation and progress – and I am willing to be part of it, too.” That is truly the challenge for organizational and individual success. So if you decide to be a catalyst and support change and innovation, don’t expect smiles, handshakes and a parade. Everyone is going to want to kick your ass until they see and embrace the merits of change for themselves. Then, of course, it will have been their idea. So just smile, shake their hand and give them that parade.
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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.