Building Training & Apprenticeship Programs
ABC of the Carolinas Works to Solve Construction Labor Shortage
Finding qualified workers to tackle construction in the Carolinas has been one of the major roadblocks in completing projects since the economic downturn of 2008. That’s why the Carolinas chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) has made meeting those needs a key part of its strategic plan going into 2018.
ABC is a national trade association representing construction and industry-related firms. Its chapters help members win work and deliver that work safely, ethically and profitably. To accomplish these goals, the organization influences policymakers and provides education, marketing and informational programs for its members, says ABC of the Carolinas Vice President Michelle Lewter.
“We will continue to address the lack of skilled workers through our apprenticeship and workforce education,” she says. “Last year, we purchased a 10,000-square-foot building, which gives us a dedicated training space in the Triangle (the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) compatible with the existing space we have in Charlotte. We are super excited about the opportunities this offers. Our goal is to fill up the seats for task-based training daily and apprenticeship classes in the evenings.”
Importance of Workforce Education
The Triangle training office opened in 2017 for fire sprinkler and electrician levels 1, 2, 3 and 4. This year, plumbing classes are scheduled to start in both the Triangle and Charlotte training centers.
Focusing on continuing education and apprenticeship, ABC began a school-to-careers committee last year in conjunction with the Wake County Public School System. A group consisting of teachers, general contractors, subcontractors and school administrators created a competition for students to build a shed.
Eight high schools with drafting programs competed in the first phase of the program in two-student teams per teacher. They each received an RFP (request for proposal) and each had to design a shed. An architect approved the designs and then the second phase of the competition was the actual shed build. Each four-student build team was affiliated with a specialty contractor and general contractor. The sheds had to be built by the students with only the supervision of the professionals.
The build was like a sports event, with family members bringing their lawn chairs to sit and watch, Lewter says. The winning two-member draft team and its instructor each received a laptop with AutoCAD (a commercial computer-aided design and drafting software application).
“The entire process is focused on getting high school students interested in construction industry jobs. ABC wants to be part of the solution in building a relationship between our contractors and students, as the opportunities for both are endless,” Lewter says.
The event was such a hit that the Charleston local Chamber of Commerce heard about it and reached out to learn more about hosting its own shed competition, Lewter says. “We shared the documentation and all the lessons learned and simply asked them to team up with ABC, should they decide to do it. Other markets are looking to add the competition, too,” she adds.
Lewter calls the ABC apprenticeship program the “other four-year degree,” in lieu of a college degree. It involves two nights a week for four years for workers currently employed in the construction industry. Their companies pay for the education and the apprentice can earn full NCCER (National Center for Construction Education & Research) certification.
“The NCCER certification is nationally recognized like a four-year degree and stays with the student, who can complete the program debt-free,” she says. “Right now, we offer plumbing, electrical and fire sprinkler programs with plans to add more this year.”
“These are young people who work in the trades and want to move up the ladder,” she explains. “They want to be more qualified, and most of our member companies structure raises for the students in the program.”
The ABCs of ABC
ABC National was founded in 1950 when seven contractors gathered in Baltimore, to create an association based on the shared belief that construction projects should be awarded on merit to the most qualified and responsible bidders.
ABC Carolinas has nine chapters across the Carolinas with monthly events, training, networking and social meetings in each market. There is also a full-time lobbyist in Raleigh who works with legislators on concerns important to the construction industry. The government affairs committee reaches out to legislators in local markets to help them understand what members do and the issues they face on a day-to-day basis.
ABC has two hard-hat days, in which members visit legislatures in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Columbia, South Carolina. The organization’s members also visited Washington, D.C., to get members engaged on a national level, Lewter says.
Additionally, the organization assists members with safety training. A safety committee works together to talk about job site safety, and members go to job sites and share suggestions. Lewter says they created a slogan that they follow as their guiding philosophy: “There is no competition in safety.”
“If we all have the same high safety standards, it is invaluable for the industry overall,” Lewter says. “Members work together inspecting fellow members’ job sites, offering feedback for best practices.”
Lewter joined ABC in 2006 and has seen the Carolinas organization expand from two councils to nine councils and add an annual safety conference. The organization’s Excellence in Construction awards banquet has grown to more than 700 attendees and award entries have increased from eight to 80. She was instrumental in the implementation of the Meet the Generals event, which allows members to get face-to-face time with leaders in the industry in a rotational speed-networking type of event.
Membership has grown to more than 500 in the past 15 years, and Lewter says the organization’s mantra is to create valuable services for its members.
“We’re not selling you a car or a widget, we’re selling a service, so we need it to be the best service we can offer,” Lewter explains. “If a member asks for something, we find a way to make it happen. We are here to serve our members; that is the whole purpose for our existence.”
The organization has grown 45 percent over the past five years, Lewter says. Its goal for the next five to 10 years is to reach 1,000 members. “That is a lofty goal, but with some of the measures we have in place, I believe we can make it happen,” she says. “Our mission has been to strengthen the services we offer our membership, as this will help us grow.” She shares a metaphor of a tumbleweed’s shallow root system, which is easily uprooted and can cause the tumbleweed to be blown around aimlessly with no direction and no purpose. Unlike the tumbleweed, she asserts that her association “needs to be well-rooted like a big, tall oak tree, with strong roots as deep as our treetops are tall. This is what will sustain us and grow the chapter.”