Earlier this summer, we talked to Damion Karter on the day he turned 18, and just a few weeks into beginning his new job at Northwest Plumbing Co., Knoxville, Tennessee. Karter, however, was already a familiar face to the folks at Northwest.
“Damion was one of our Ride & Decide students last summer,” says Tammy Graham, office manager for Northwest, mentioning the successful job-shadowing program started in 2015 by contractor Gordy Noe and the Tennessee Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors. “He was and is a good fit for our company.”
Karter, who had just ended his junior year of high school back then, still remembers that first day his parents dropped him off in the early morning hours when the sun was barely up. (Actually, it’s more than a little easy to remember the day since it was also his 17th birthday. There’s something about birthdays with him and Northwest.)
After getting familiar with the tools of the trade and basic procedures, Karter eventually headed out to his first jobsite to help install water and sewer lines for a building that would become a golf simulation site.
And, from the sound of our interview, it didn’t take him long either to adopt the code of contractors everywhere, which is to point out all the projects they’ve helped create.
“I came back a couple of weeks later when the building was more complete, and it was cool to see how the whole process of not just the plumbing, but all the other construction work came together.”
Through the Ride & Decide program, Karter not only gained real-life experience for five days a week for a month at Northwest, but also a local HVAC dealer the following month.
Students are paid for their work and, provided they are sophomores or juniors, are invited to return again the next summer. Which is what Karter planned to do, but the pandemic put a hold on the program for 2020.
After graduating high school last spring, Karter was working at a local hardware school nearby Northwest’s offices and, Graham adds, “our guys kept telling me, ‘I talked to Damion today and he’s interested in working for us.’ ”
And with that bit of networking, Karter was on his way to a promising career.
“I enjoyed the work I did,” Damion says. “And I enjoyed the people I worked with. And I'm one of those guys who likes a challenge and, you know, I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
And if all goes according to planned, Karter will also be taking part in the Tennessee PHCC apprenticeship classes this year.
“We’re glad it worked out for him and we could welcome him back,” Graham adds. “While he couldn’t go into the program again this year, he did have an idea of what he wanted to do. Everyone loves working with him. I do know he shows up on time and is hard worker.”
Ride & Decide
While Karter may owe a debt of gratitude to Northwest, he was also helped along the way by Noe, president of Pioneer Heating and Air, also in Knoxville, who thought up the Ride and Decide program.
“The trades are suffering for workers,” Noe told us earlier this year over the phone when we, too, had to jettison our plans to fly to Tennessee and meet him personally as he and others from the Tennessee PHCC and area trades kicked off this year’s Ride and Decide program at Central High School, Knoxville, last May 14.
"This is a problem we address every day in business, because it's getting harder and harder to find skilled tradespeople," he adds.
Noe told us that he had participated in various work-based learning programs beforehand, but realized he needed to reach potential employees much earlier and expose them to the field.
“We all know that part of the problem is the perception of our industry jobs,” he adds. “By providing an avenue where a student can see first-hand what the jobs entail while getting paid, students can make informed decisions if the trades are right for them.”
Through partnerships with local businesses and school systems, the program pairs up students with various contractors. Students and participating businesses all take part in a one-day kickoff event at the high school. The students and contractors make their choices and, a week later, the staff at Tennessee PHCC finalizes the matchmaking.
"The idea is to ‘ride and decide,’ ” Noe says. “If a job in the trade isn’t right, that's OK. They’ve found that out, too. But it could be a jump-start to a tremendous career. It's giving the parents and the students the right information to make the right decisions."
Since the start of the program, almost 200 students have spent part of their summers seeing if the trades are right for them. And while we’re naturally partial to the PHCP and HVAC trades, Noe’s Ride & Decide program includes other trades, such as electrical, carpentry, masonry and other construction skilled jobs. What’s more, Noe’s handiwork has inspired other PHCC state groups to adopt their own Ride and Decide programs.
‘This is what high school kids are missing,'” Noe explains. “Bring them in, show them different aspects of the business and let them try it out for themselves for a month or two in the summer.”
Mission Statement for Ride and Decide Program
The Tennessee Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors’ Ride and Decide program links students age 16 to 18 with a paid summer job in a skilled trade. The program is designed to encourage students to consider employment in the trades after graduating from high school as well as educating students and parents on the benefits of working in the trades.