Oklahoma Sheet Metal Workers Launch Innovative Development Program
At the training center for Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 124 in Oklahoma City, committee members and training director Trent London grew tired of hearing “I’m just a sheet metal worker” as an excuse for apprentices’ unprofessional behavior. To change the mentality, they sought out and hired consultant Nic Bittle.
Sheet metal workers are professionals, and apprentices needed to start seeing themselves in that light. Bittle, who owns Workforce Pro, helps those not in managerial or leadership positions create an entrepreneurial mindset for better performance on and off the job.
“That’s what we’re trying to erase,” London said. “It should be ‘I’m a professional, and I need to look and dress like one.’ We want them to think about what they do today as having an effect on their ability to get hired.”
The idea: to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the apprentices and apprentice program and fill the need for professional development, which includes written and verbal communication in the workplace, personal appearance and personal finance and management. The program started with a pilot program in January 2013 and has evolved and continued since then. The goal is to have all apprentices participate through the years of their education.
To start, Bittle spent two weeks researching the industry and visiting contractors and apprentices on job sites and in fabrication shops in the area. He identified four core competencies he felt lacked in the apprenticeship: communication, leadership, entrepreneurship and professionalism. To address these ideals, Bittle hosted a seminar at the beginning of the semester and followed up with a 24-part series of email lessons. Apprentices are required to engage in conversation about the topics addressed during the lessons, which are readdressed during a second seminar in the second half of the school year.
“Because I was the outside guy, the apprentices were willing to talk to me,” Bittle said. “My hope is they implement it into their lives and use it. We’re not building better buildings. We’re building better people. They’re going to be better when they turn out. But they’ll also be better husbands and fathers. That’s what gets me excited.”
The program is about to finish its first full school year, but it’s still too early to tell exactly how much headway is being made with apprentices, London said.
“Our committee thinks it could be a few years until they see a definite change,” London said. “I’ve heard people say they’ve gotten something out of it. It’s something our committee, the contractors that employ these people, thinks [the apprentices] need.”
The idea for the program came directly from the members of the training committee who are also contractors. They found that although the work was good, apprentices lacked professional skills. During his research, Bittle found many apprentices felt the quality of their work should be the benchmark of their professional careers – not their attitude, communication skills or leadership qualities.
Bittle introduced to apprentices the idea of a reputation score – how they are viewed from job site to job site, contractor to contractor.
“If you’re difficult on the job site, the next boss will likely hear about it. Everybody has a reputation score,” Bittle said. “You have a reputation the minute you enter the union. And it’s how you manage your reputation score. Their job is part of it, but so is their professionalism. You can’t look up your score, but you’ve got one.”
Bringing in Bittle was a way to allow the apprentices to speak and think freely, saying what they needed to say without worrying about what their instructors, coordinator or committee would think. Changes in the way the training center staff communicates with the apprentices have already been made based on Bittle’s conversations with the students, London said.
“I think it’s really opened us up to a lot more communication between the apprentices and the committee,” London said. “It’s given the apprentices more of a voice.”
Because of the success in Oklahoma City, the training center in Tulsa, Oklahoma also hired Bittle, who started the program there in January. In Tulsa, 90 percent of the apprentices are younger than 25.
“The younger generation’s time is more valuable to them than their job or money. It wasn’t like that for my generation. For us, it was all about the job,” said Arthur Winters, part-time training director for Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 270’s training center in Tulsa. “I’m hoping this will help them prepare for their futures and approach their lives a different way. If we can make a difference in even a few lives, it’ll be well worth the effort.”
Not every apprentice is a fan of the program, but for now, London and Bittle are fine with that.
“There’s a handful that thinks this is junk. I’m not saying I’m the last person on the planet who understands integrity and personal finance. We have really good kids. Not everyone is a fan of it, but I’m OK with that,” Bittle said. “It’s a four-year thing. It’s a long process.”
“Right now, the plan is to keep this going, build the relationship and put this food-for-thought into their heads to put more value in their careers,” London said.