Panels of Possibility
Drywall contractor helps build next generation talent
“I never liked to be told that I was too young or too inexperienced. I just wanted employers to give me a chance and an opportunity to learn.”
It’s these words and the sentiment behind them that has sparked Richard Bernard Jr.’s commitment to building a pipeline of young, excited talent. Bernard is President of Pilgrim Interiors, an open shop subcontractor in business since 1999 that specializes in metal framing, drywall and plaster installation/restoration.
Since the company’s inception, Bernard has teamed with local high schools and colleges to form co-op programs and internships. His investment in tomorrow’s workforce has helped minimize staffing challenges in his company over the years. He confirms, “We’re still active in forums and other sources in our continual search for quality talent. But, I believe the future of our company is the kids. The more we invest in them today, the better our long-term potential.”
For Pilgrim Interiors, Bernard’s business strategy is certainly working for the kids, the community and the company. A look at Pilgrim Interiors’ history provides insight into the founders’ connection to the community.
Building the Foundation
Bernard started his business on the second floor of a duplex in Chicopee, Mass., with his brother Patrick, and friends, Ivan Fuentes and Alfredo Sanchez. Bernard’s team recognized a few years ago that there would be workforce issues in construction—and did something about it. He recalls, “We just weren’t seeing young people move into the trades and realized if that trend continued, we—as a subcontractor—would be in trouble as the economy improved.”
So the company executives did something about it. They established co-op programs with the Roger L. Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy, a vocational high school in nearby Springfield, Mass., and the Chicopee Comprehensive High School. Bernard also joined the board of Putnam’s carpentry department, helping define and expand the curriculum as needed per industry advancements. He also coordinates with Springfield Technical Community College, the only technical school of its kind in the Commonwealth, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to hire students graduating from the construction management and building technology programs, respectively. In 2015, Bernard hired a college coordinator to expand the company’s relationship with local colleges and universities.
He says, “Through these programs, I’m able to give young people an opportunity that might never have been possible. Given the ability to encounter real-life construction scenarios and professional mentoring, these young people excel.”
The Fruits of His Efforts
Last summer, five high school and college-age young people came to work for Pilgrim Interiors as interns or employees as a result of the company’s development programs. Two high school students, both members of the Carpentry Program at Chicopee Comprehensive High School, also worked for the company full time during the summer.
“Through the co-op program, these teenagers received hands-on training in carpentry and now have a chance to put those skills to work,” says Bernard. “We expect that they’ll join the Pilgrim Interiors family upon graduation.”
In February 2016, Pilgrim Interiors hired a recent graduate of Amherst’s Construction Management/Building Technology program.
Bernard adds, “This young man has already made a tremendous impact on the day-to-day operations of our estimating department. His knowledge of technology and software is perfectly aligned with Pilgrim Interiors’ approach to technology adoption.”
He also recently hired a 2016 graduate of the Putnam Vocational Carpentry program. This individual worked for Pilgrim Interiors as a vocational student during his junior and senior years, and now works for the company full time. Another recent graduate from the Springfield Technical Community College’s Civil Engineering/Construction Management program is now a drawing coordinator for the company, using his newly acquired skills to integrate drawings into construction management software.
During its 18 years of operation, Pilgrim Interiors has grown to over 100 employees and, perhaps most impressively, the core group of individuals that started with the company is still there. Bernard says with a smile in his voice, “Once you join the Pilgrim family, you never want to leave.”
It also helps that the company does quality work for a variety of clients. Pilgrim Interiors has completed hundreds of projects for public and private sectors. Projects range from a 5,000-square-foot office and/or medical fit up, to a ground up hotel development and a 100,000+ square-foot industrial complex.
Bernard says, “We’ll do any size project. Many of my competitors are more selective about project scope and scale. It’s another reason that we invest so heavily in workforce development—we are committed to providing quality services, advanced solutions and timely results … and we need those next generation minds to help us grow.”
He points to one project, the $11.4 million, 10,000-square-foot Orleans Police Department renovation, which is currently underway in Orleans, Mass. Pilgrim Interiors will be responsible for light gauge metal framing as well as drywall of all types, including the latest in ballistic-compliant wall products. Additionally, Pilgrim Interiors is a big player in the Baystate Medical Center Daly Core Lab renovation project where it is handling framing and drywall work, as well as demolition.
“Because of the size and varied skills of our staff, we’re able to take on a broad range of tasks, providing our usual high-quality, fast-paced product,” adds Bernard. “On this particular project, we are handling the framing, insulation, drywall, ceilings, doors and hardware within a tightly controlled environment, something Pilgrim Interiors has dealt with, and succeeded at, countless times.”
Pilgrim Interiors is also highly active on military projects throughout the Northeast as well as community projects to support veterans.
Bernard is particularly proud of his company’s work with Soldier On, a private nonprofit organization committed to ending veteran homelessness. Currently, the organization is converting the former Western Mass Regional Police Academy in Agawam, Mass. into community housing for military veteran men and women. This $14 million project will provide over 50,000 square feet of living space in the form of 51 new units of housing, as well as dining facilities and administrative offices. Pilgrim Interiors is responsible for the build-out of all interior walls, including drywall and finishes.
He adds, “We are extremely proud to be part of a project that provides necessary living spaces for those men and women who make incredible sacrifices for the good of all American citizens.”
Through the company’s involvement with Soldier On, Bernard also found a warehouse manager (Stanley F. Lacy Jr., a Navy veteran) who now manages Pilgrim Interiors’ new warehouse.
Bernard concludes, “I’ve been very fortunate. We’ve grown steadily and we’ve been able to integrate great systems to help manage that growth efficiently. We’ve just moved to a larger space, which gives us much greater flexibility to handle even more business and, just as importantly, more space to expand our co-op training programs and accommodate our growing staff. Much like the joy we see when our young people complete their first project, we see great possibilities ahead.”