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.
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.
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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.”