On-the-job training

By Mike Lewis
Maximus Perini, 18, who graduated from Washington County (Md.) Technical High School in June, works on a job site for Ellsworth Electric after graduation.

Electrical firm works with teens to fill skills gap

By Mike Lewis
mlewis@crossroadsbizjournal.com

Perched atop a lift recently, Maximus Perini pulled old wire and conduit down from the ceiling of a building that is being rehabbed in Hagerstown, Md.

For the 18-year-old, a recent graduate of Washington County (Md.) Technical High School, the task was more than a summer-job chore. It might be a step along the way to being a professional electrician.

“It feels good. I like it,” he said about working for Ellsworth Electric, a Hagerstown-based firm.

Perini is one of a few teenagers who have spent some time working with the company. Experts say the nation needs a lot more young people going into all of the skilled trades.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 300,000 unfilled construction jobs in the country, and the industry is expected to need an additional 747,000 workers by 2016. In the electrical field alone, more than 59,000 more workers will be needed by 2026, the bureau reports.

Individual companies, trade groups and governmental agencies have been working to fill those gaps.

Maryland, for example, has rolled out apprenticeship programs designed to give high schoolers a head start in training for a range of jobs, including those in the skilled trades. The youth apprenticeship program started with pilot programs in Frederick and Washington counties and has spread to others. Allegany County recently signed on.

But the gap persists.

“It’s getting worse,” said John Barr, president of Ellsworth.

The job require more than passing a drug test and knowing how to splice wires. It requires someone “to not only know the trade, but to be able to work with people, to show up on time, to be able to communicate back to management what they did and what they used to fix it.”

Like a lot of companies, Ellsworth has tried a variety of ways to recruit and train skilled workers. One of Ellsworth’s success stories, in Barr’s words, is working with teachers like Chad Secrest, electrical construction teacher at Tech High.

“Usually on an annual basis, he’s communicating with managers here at Ellsworth,” Barr said.

Secrest refers students to Ellsworth, and that can turn into an on-the-job audition, Barr said.

“If they show promise, if they show potential, we enroll them in the Barr Institute,” he said. “We get them started in all that.”

The Barr Institute is a training facility that operates under the Cumberland Valley Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc.

By way of example, Barr pointed to two young Ellsworth workers, Ryan Robertson and Josh Rhoades.

Using the knowledge they gained at Tech High, they were able to test out of the first two years of the four-year electrician course. They still have to complete the required hours of on-the-job training, but they have a head start.

“They’re going right into year No. 3 of the apprenticeship program,” Barr said. “It’s a heck of a deal. … They cut that in half right out of the chute.”

Perini meanwhile, is “working with one of our very best master electricians. And they’re hopping all over the place. … You name it, he’s being exposed to it,” Barr said.

That master electrician, Darrell Stephens, has a vested interest in the younger generation. He teaches the fourth-year class at the Barr Institute.

“The kids have to get through me to get out,” Stephens said. “I actually like it. … I’m tough on them. Tough love, you’re going to learn. … I want these kids to learn the right way to do stuff.”

The veteran electrician said that being a teacher requires a watchful eye.

“I pay attention to everything they’re doing. … I can see from the quality of their work” what skills they need to hone, he said.

Sometimes that means teaching people skills required at any workplace, like when to have a little fun and when to crack down and be serious.

Stephens put Perini through a bit of that recently. The youth was on the lift when the master electrician arrived at the worksite. The veteran put the rookie through a few questions about his safety gear.

“These kids have to learn that from the get-go,” Stephens said.

Perini seemed to take it in stride.

He said he saw Tech High as “a good opportunity to learn a skilled trade.” His uncle, John Reece, is an electrician.

“I thought it might be a good trade to learn,” he said.

And, thus far, he’s sticking with that opinion. The work is physically demanding, he said, while requiring knowledge and skill.

“I don’t really see a downside,” he said. “I like where I work and who I work with. … The jobs can be dirty and hard, but it’s better than being in a cubicle.”