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Mentorship Initiatives: Bridge the Gap

Mentorship Initiatives


By Don Procter • Photo courtesy of Sheet Metal Workers Local 20, Indiana

Sheet metal contractors across the United States and Canada are increasingly facing a common problem: how to replace key experienced people nearing retirement.

“Around here, you need to build up your workforce because in the next five years you are going to have a mass exodus,” says Jason Benson, apprenticeship coordinator for Local 20 in Indiana. “If 10 guys are retiring, you need to bring on at least 15 new ones.”

Benson, who echoes the sentiments many Locals are feeling, says that just because construction activity is healthy now, it doesn’t mean contractors should ignore what is coming. He believes that it is an opportune time for contractors to take a serious stab at a mentorship initiative.

Joseph Lansdell, president of one of the largest sheet metal contractors in Indiana, Poynter Sheet Metal, Inc., agrees. Contractors with mentorship programs, like Poynter has, have some security that the next generation of workers will be up to the task of leadership, he says.

But most contractors don’t think that way, says Lansdell, who was SMACNA president from 2016 to 2017. “Through my SMACNA relationship I have not heard about a lot of mentor/mentee relationships in construction.”

That has to change—soon—in part because sheet metal contractors are increasingly seeing older workers move into shop supervisory roles. Replacing those positions in the next five years will become a challenge for any contractor not teaching soft skills to fast-rising workers.

Poynter offers its young workers a six-month mentorship program. Now in its fourth year, the program puts workers in a monthly class for five hours to help them understand seminal

industry topics, such as specifications, bid documents, and contract drawings, says Nathan Shinkle, a project manager who leads Poynter’s mentorship program.

Poynter’s mentorship program covers things like scheduling. “We try to teach them to look four to six weeks ahead,” he says. “With material lead times these days from vendors, suppliers, and your own organization, the bigger you grow, the longer it takes to get something out.”

Poynter uses various staff for instructors, based on their experience with the subject matter of the class. “We need to teach them foreman 101 and also teach them the way we do business,” Shinkle says. Time management, diplomacy, and communications skills are other topics.

Based in Greenwood, on the southern fringe of the Indianapolis metropolitan area, Poynter has more than 460 employees. The company performs work in Indiana and slices of Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky.

Of the 35 employees who have taken Poynter’s mentorship program, most have gone on to supervisory roles such as foremen. One graduate who had never run a job prior to entering the mentorship program recently supervised one of Poynter’s highest profile projects.

Shinkle adds that while the size of a company shouldn’t change the need for mentorship and education programs, small contractors might have the most to gain because they often have more employees with key decision-making responsibilities. “A larger company can stub its toe on one or two (bad) decisions without a ripple effect.”

Another mentorship initiative at Poynter is the Apprenticeship Contractor School (ACS). It is geared to third-year apprentices

in central Indiana who are signatory to Local 20 and is mandatory for all apprentices in the Local. In its fifth year, it covers soft skills such as setting personal, career, and financial goals, says Lansdell, who is head instructor at the school.

Also covered in the school are project management, estimating, CAD, and even company ownership skills. Taught over two eight-hour periods, the course includes an estimating competition. “We do a private bid opening in class,” Lansdell says. “Local 20 JATC instructors attend a lunch-and-learn session to tell the young apprentices about their experiences.”

Poynter provides training and classroom facilities for free at ACS. Lansdell sees it as a sound investment because it increases the knowledge base of the next generation of workers. Plus, it allows him to get to know each apprentice in the area.

As SMACNA national president two years ago Lansdell met many contractors across the United States who were concerned about impending labor shortages. It was a big motivator for how the curriculum for the ACS evolved.

At Local 20, Benson says the contractor school is an eyeopening experience for apprentices and, ultimately, will advance the industry. “It is why we at Local 20 have taken the school model statewide,” he says. He believes Poynter’s results are clear evidence of the program’s value.

“They are probably in the forefront of mentorship programs in our Local. They assign mentors to apprentices, they promote from within, and they build these guys up through their five years of apprenticeship.”

Benson, who is unaware of any other Locals doing similar contractor schools in the United States, says that before apprentices head to ACS at Poynter, they are introduced at

Local 20 to costing, bidding, project management, and foreman training. “It gives them a heads up on what they are getting into at Poynter,” he says.

According to Benson, tight margins and the shrinking skilled worker pool are reasons progressive contractors today put a high value on developing apprentices to become the next generation of leaders. He did not see that as a priority a decade or two ago when apprentices were directed to keep their heads down and do what they were told.

“I think Poynter’s mentoring program gives apprentices a goal that shows it is not just a job, but rather a career where they can advance to become a journeyman, detailer, estimator, shop foreman, or shop owner,” he says. “From a contractor’s and even a union’s point of view, you can’t wait until that guy retires. You have to be planning five or ten years in advance.”

Local 20 is also considering future changes. One possibility is developing a leadership council over the next few years. This is where apprentices would be introduced to employment opportunities at the union, such as business agents, business managers, organizers, and instructors. “We want to make sure everything is in place for down the road when we retire,” Benson says.

Lansdell says if other contractors haven’t already addressed the growing gap of skilled workers both in the field and the shop, they need to start immediately or they may miss their window.

At the very least, Lansdell says, it’s worthwhile for contractors and Locals to consider the mentorship aspect of the collective bargaining agreement that stipulates every apprentice do a six-month rotation twice during their apprenticeship to gain a better understanding of work both in the field and the shop. “It is an effort to turn out well-rounded apprentices,” he says. ▪

A freelance writer based in Toronto, Don Procter covers the building, design and planning industries in Canada and the United States. Away from the office, his pursuits include the ongoing restoration of his centuries-old home, cooking for family, and playing in a blues band.