On the fab shop floor in Ashland, Virginia, the sound of fabrication is a mix of hard staccato of metal hammering and pipes slamming and the high-pitched whirrs of sawing. It is punctuated with forklift horns.
For many, this would sound like chaos. To Jamelle Adkins, it is a symphony of teamwork that takes place between welders, threaders, cutters, groovers and forklift drivers. “I enjoy what I do and being part of a team,” said Adkins. “We’re all working towards the same objective and when that’s the case, we need to be singing from the same sheet of music.”
Their objective is straightforward and important. As the nation’s largest independent distributor of fire protection supplies, Ferguson offers pipe fabrication, cutting, and end preparation services to the fire protection and sprinkler industry. Subsequently, Adkins, a self-described prankster, takes his job at Ferguson seriously.
Adkins started with Ferguson Fire and Fabrication in 2012 as a fabricator on the threading machine, a machine used to form threads when fabricating pipe. Over the years, he advanced in the company and now works as a counter representative. “Every day is different. Someday, I work with customers. My hands-on knowledge of the fabrication process helps me better help the customer,” he said. “Other days, when we’re short-staffed, I’ll jump back on a threading machine.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as an African American fabricator, Adkins is a rarity. According to their latest Labor Force data, last updated on Jan. 22, 2020, out of 122,000 men and women employed in metalworking machinery manufacturing, only 2.5 percent are African American. (92 percent are White, 5.5 percent are Asian and 5.9 percent are Hispanic or Latino.)
It is not much different for other industries facing the skilled trade shortage:
The skilled trades were generally occupations that didn’t embrace diversity until recently. This is mainly due to the hand-me-down lineage of the trades. For years, trades such as plumbing, electrical work and welding have been passed down from father to son. “None of my family were in the skilled trades,” said Adkins. “I was lucky in that I was introduced to fabrication work through Marvin. His wife knows my wife.”
Adkins recognizes the need to pay it forward. “What I know, I will share with others,” he said. “Plus, there’s enough to go around.”
According to the newly launched Skilled Trades Pay campaign, 2 million vacant skilled trade jobs in manufacturing will remain unfilled by 2025. Skilled trade career opportunities will continue to grow into the next decade, much faster than the average career.
The Skilled Trades Pay campaign was recently launched by Ferguson Cares to address the perception issue. Ferguson Cares is the organization’s corporate social responsibility program that seeks to build partnerships with transformational nonprofit organizations within its five key focus areas of hunger, housing, disaster relief, clean water and sanitation and the skilled trades. Unfortunately, there are many stereotypes unfairly attributed to the skilled trades. Adkins is breaking the skilled trades typecast. For him, the skilled trades offered financial and job security.
“When my wife was carrying my daughter, I knew I needed to make some decisions about how to provide for my family,” said Adkins. “I knew the skilled trades were the best way. Today, I’ve achieved homeownership. My daughter won’t have to do the same things I’ve had to do to get where I am today.”
As Adkins continues to move his career forward, he challenges the skilled trade stereotype by also continuing his education without crippling college debt. According to the Skilled Trades Pay campaign, the average four-year degree costs $127,000 and a two-year trade school degree costs $33,000. Adkins has returned to school with the hopes of crushing one more perception.
Unlike what many people think, skilled tradespeople often have entrepreneurial spirits. “I remember walking on this job site and seeing this man I knew from my neighborhood working for himself. I came from the same bad neighborhood. I realized that anyone could do that. You have to dream big and work hard,” said Adkins.
As Adkins reflected on his past and his future and what he hopes for his family, he said, “I encourage my nephew and my niece to consider the skilled trades. I’ve told them there are real opportunities here. I was raised to believe that I needed to be an athlete or musician to be successful. I still love sports; sports taught me the value of teamwork. But not everyone can be in the NBA. We need to expand the definition of what our heroes look like – it’s anyone who is the boss of their own game.”