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Patrick Grogan opened Pat the Plumber, Topeka, Kan., in 2005 “back when it was my wife, me and a truck. Slowly but surely, Grogan added HVAC and changed the business name to Pat Plumbing, Heating and Air. Today, Grogan’s business focuses on residential service and replacement, just hired its 19th employee, bought a new building next door to expand and is on track for “really aggressive growth this year.”
To keep on the fast track, however, Grogan needs more techs.
“For a long time we were just hoping that the right person would walk in the door,” Grogan says. “But if we’re talking about existing techs, we’re talking about a small pool. So we just have to find great people and then make them great techs. Just give me somebody who already has a great work ethic and who’s willing to learn, and we can make them great techs.”
While he was satisfied with the talent coming out of three local HVAC tech schools, Grogan found it odd that no one offered a plumbing program.
“There were no plumbing programs even remotely close,” he adds.
One day, he picked up the phone and called the dean of Washburn Institute of Technology and shared his frustration.
Washburn started in Topeka in 1941 as the Topeka Trade School. After long being part of the local school district, the school, then known as the Kaw Area Technical School, joined Washburn University in 2008.
Shortly after his call, Grogan spent a year working with Washburn faculty to develop a plumbing program, even pledging a $25,000 donation payable over a number of years to help the cause.
Little did Grogan know, however, that another similar idea was in the works through another industry partnership, created around the same time as his original phone call to Washburn.
Last year, Ferguson, the country’s largest PHCP wholesaler, and Explore The Trades, a nonprofit organization with a mission to recruit individuals to the PHC and electrical trades, committed to a pilot grant program designed to expose high school students to PHC careers that they might not otherwise learn about.
The two organizations created an initiative that’s formally called Explore The Trades Skills Lab, Built by Ferguson, which follows decades of underfunded skilled trades programs in high schools as more students were steered toward four-year college degrees.
Ferguson committed $300,000 to the partnership and will assist primarily with products and tools to outfit the hands-on classrooms; meanwhile, Explore The Trades will tap into its vast network of contractors to serve as advisors for aspiring plumbers and HVAC techs.
“Many technical programs disappeared from high schools across the country and that left the service trades industry with a lack of skilled professionals,” says Kate Cinnamo, executive director of Explore The Trades. “With the expertise of local contractors, this program will not only strengthen communities, but will also create new technicians who will carry on the legacy of these trades.”
Prior to teaming up with Explore the Trades, Ferguson had already outfitted a classroom with plumbing and heating equipment at a school near its corporate headquarters in Newport News, Va. A brainstorming phone call between Cinnamo and Melissa Hazelwood, Ferguson’s director of social impact, led to the creation of the national program.
Working with Nexstar members
The plan for the pilot program is to be exclusive to Nexstar members to help them develop their next generation of tradespeople in their own communities.
Grogan, a member of Nexstar, was pleasantly surprised one day after opening an email from Cinnamo, describing the program and soliciting members to join in the effort.
“I wondered if that would work for what I’d been talking about with Washburn,” Grogan adds. “And Kate encouraged me to apply for the Ferguson grant to be part of the plan. It’s kind of crazy how it worked out. The timing was impeccable.”
As a result, earlier this year, Pat Plumbing, Heating & Air and Washburn Tech opened one of four Explore The Trades Skills Labs at Washburn.
One other plumbing program opened at the Byron Martin Advanced Technology Center through a partnership with Armstrong Plumbing, Air, Electric, Lubbock, Texas.
Two other lab partnerships focus on HVAC training:
• Peaden Air Conditioning, Plumbing & Electrical and Tom P. Haney Technical College, Panama City, Fla.
• Rite Way Heating, Cooling & Plumbing and Rincon High School/Joint Technical Education District, Tucson, Ariz.
Plans are to open 10 such labs in total.
Grogan told us 10 students quickly enrolled after word first spread of the new classroom and program with room for up to 30 students to attend the first class starting this fall.
“This is geared toward local high school students, juniors and seniors, to attend during the day,” Grogan explains. “But it certainly is also open to anyone else who is interested in changing careers for one in the trades.”
The training program at Washburn will last a year and from there, graduates could be in the running for employment and future training at Pat Plumbing, Heating & Air.
“They’ll have the basics out of the way,” Grogan adds. “Things like being able to solder and identify pipe and fittings. That’s great for us since it takes care of a lot of the early learning.”
Grogan taps into the Nextech Academy, an online technical training developed for Nexstar members, to further educate his crew. In fact, on the day we spoke to Grogan, his company had just held a graduation ceremony earlier that morning.
The Nextech curriculum combines the best parts of an apprenticeship with the efficiency of online learning. Using the program, students can ride along on service calls with experienced techs, ensuring they see the real-world applications of the concepts they learn via online courses.
Explore The Trades
Founded in 2005, Explore The Trades is committed to developing the next generation of skilled tradespeople by changing the perception of the trades. The organization creates awareness of the trades through key industry statistics, career resources and connections with industry-leading residential service companies throughout North America.
Cinnamo joined the organization five years ago after spending a decade in the healthcare industry overseeing grants, community relations and volunteer efforts.
Explore The Trades is part of the Nexstar Network, founded in 1992 as Contractors 2000 by Frank Blau, George Brazil and a pioneering group of other contractors as a member-owned organization dedicated to education and sharing within the PHC residential service industry.
Cinnamo describes the relationship between the two as more of a “dotted line” in the overall organization chart.
“We do have our own board of trustees, bylaws and financials,” Cinnamo adds. “And while a lot of work is exclusive to Nexstar members, not everything we do is. The idea is our initiatives that are open to nonmembers are designed to raise the tide for all boats.”
One such example is an outreach program to get the word out to high schools about the trades.
“We look at teachers, guidance counselors and parents as our main audiences,” Cinnamo says.
When we spoke to Cinnamo she was on her way to exhibit at the American School Counselors Association’s annual convention.
“School counselors tell us that they have students who are perfect for our industry,” she adds. “But they don’t know anything about it so they don’t talk it up with their students. There’s a whole generation of tradespeople that we’ve lost because they didn’t hear about a career in the trades while they were in high school.”
What Cinnamo has developed are promotional aides and a speaker’s bureau of sorts.
For example, online information such as a “Trades Toolbox” webinar recorded last March and archived on the organization’s website (bit.ly/3BHIL03) offers more than 30 minutes of helpful information on the potential of a skilled trades career. In addition, posters designed to hang up in classrooms and offices also break down the career path. She says they’ve sent the posters to 585 schools districts
“We break it down into steps,” Cinnamo explains. “Step No. 1 is what an apprenticeship is. A lot of students probably haven’t even heard that word before. It’s really boiling down the basics to show students the path they need to take to go into skilled trades. Counselors and teachers are really starving for information about the industry, and we can provide that.”
Cinnamo also shares this with all contractors with further information they can pass along if they are invited to speak at, say, a career fair at their local high schools.
“That’s a great way that the contractors themselves can build their own relationships right in their own communities,” Cinnamo explains, “And it’s a great way to get in front of potential employees. Contractors are the success factor in building the next generation of techs.” l
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