In a time of massive technological change in the trade industries, vocational-technical education programs can be a source of new labor for remodelers. Vo-tech students are not slackers who want to avoid mathematics, science and English at all costs. Today’s students gain skills that can help them immediately contribute to a remodeling company’s success. Unfortunately, many qualified students are dissuaded from exploring a trade career.
"Vocational training has at times taken a bad rap because some educational leaders look at vo-tech as a last-chance opportunity for some troubled youth," says Jim Gronski, who has been teaching carpentry for 25 years. "I tell local guidance counselors that the type of student that they recommend to enter our programs would be the same student that they would want working in their house when they are not home."
Gronski, a champion of vo-tech, heads the construction department at York County Area Vocational-Technical School in York, Pa. He is active in the NAHB Remodelors Council’s education committee, the Association of Builders and Contractors, and the SkillsUSA-VICA program, which develops leadership for vo-tech students. After graduating from Pennsylvania State University and the Johnson School of Technology, Gronski became certified in carpentry and diversified occupations, which includes cooperative education. He is also certified to proctor trade competency exams. As an expert in the field, Gronski knows that the success of vo-tech depends on the industry’s support.
Talk It Up: Vo-tech education has a greater appeal because of a surge in public awareness of the construction industry. "As far as building trades go, some employers are starting to promote their particular trades," Gronski says. "Remodelers should promote a positive image of the profession -- do not demean the industry or related professions. This seems simplistic, but have you ever heard a tradesperson running down another trade? What message does that send to people in earshot?"
Avoiding trash talk and the "not in my back yard" mentality is crucial to encouraging young people to enter the trade. "How many times do you hear someone complain about the short supply or poor-quality labor pool? Then when asked why their child isn’t following in the business, they say, ‘My child is going to college,’" Gronski says. "If these people do not feel the trade areas are good enough for their children, why should someone else encourage their child to enter the profession?"
Inform and Advocate: Encouragement from remodelers should begin with young children, Gronski says. "Elementary students obviously should not job-shadow or participate in mentorships, but it is never too early to ignite that flame of interest and to take advantage of a young child’s eagerness to learn and turn that to our industry’s advantage," Gronski says. "These activities can be as simple as taking 45 minutes from a busy schedule and investing that time in encouraging students of all ages to become builders and remodelers."
Students who wish to pursue a vocational career sometimes have limited opportunities until after high school. "Unfortunately, not all areas of the country have secondary training centers for students who will be entering the work force immediately upon graduation," Gronski says. "In those areas, I encourage members of the building industry along with the service, manufacturing and automotive industries to get involved in local school politics and bring secondary training programs geared to the work force back into their school systems. This is if they want to have the opportunity to have students with entry-level skills coming to them for employment rather than the same individuals with no skills coming and looking for a job."
The integration of academics and trade training results in a student better prepared to enter the work force. "Everything deals with numbers in our trade," Gronski says. "A person needs to know not only basic addition and subtraction, but also fractions are very important. It’s tough when you have kids who can’t add two plus two and get four."
By being better prepared, he hopes, the workers will have more job satisfaction, and their ability to advance within the profession will increase as well. If this occurs, turnover rates should decrease.
Provide Input: Serve on an occupational advisory committee to develop local vo-tech school curriculum. Such committees might address employee/employer relations, communication skills, and gender and ethnic issues, along with trade-specific needs. For example, if the local market is changing from traditional framing with solid wood products to engineered lumber and/or steel, the trade representatives pass on this information to the appropriate instructor so curriculum changes can occur.
In the case of York County Vo-Tech, a committee is a valuable resource. "The committee basically tells us if we’re hitting the right buttons with our curriculum," Gronski says. "Industry representatives must assist the instructional staff by looking to the future as to what the industry needs will be three to five years down the road. Some curriculum changes may be basic, such as assisting instructors to change with the times. Are students being trained only with old technologies, or are they being instructed on state-of-the-art equipment and techniques?"
Be a Role Model: Other opportunities for involvement exist through shadowing, mentoring and training programs. "The labor shortage is great -- virtually every quality contractor lists labor needs as one of their major concerns," Gronski says. "Mentorships require a commitment to work with a young person over a period of time. At the same time, employers must not sugar-coat everything but allow the student to see some of the downsides as they occur."
Although these opportunities are unpaid, employers may extend a job offer for part-time employment. "This leads to a training partnership between the student, school and employer, which pays a wage to the student," Gronski says.
Demand Excellence: Programs such as these not only motivate students to continue their training in remodeling but also place them in a professional atmosphere where they can discover what it takes to be successful. "The general public must stop accepting lackluster performances from schools and students," Gronski says. "The lack of acceptance must also carry over to the entry-level workplaces, where just about everyone comes in contact with unmotivated, uncaring service providers. What the public has to be made aware of is [that] their acceptance of poor job performance in entry-level positions sets the barometer by which many young people will judge future employment opportunities and job expectations."
Testing remains an important element of vo-tech training. Many carpenters neglect to use exam scores as an employment tool. The scores are broken down into different categories, which allows a roofing company to review the job applicant’s score on the roofing section alone. "I tell all of our local employers that if a past graduate comes to them for a job, they should ask for his score sheet," Gronski says. "If the person says that can’t find their piece of paper, that means one of two things: They’re lying or they didn’t do well."
Observe Success: High test scores are not the lone measure of Gronski’s success as an instructor. "I am so proud when I see a former student driving a brand-new pickup truck and running a company with three or four crews working underneath him," Gronski said. "I look forward to being able to supply more quality tradespeople who will supply housing for the 21st century."