The Heavy Metal Summer Experience is about to embark on its third nation-wide tour with more than 20 dates in 12 states, which are expected to attract more than 425 students.
Co-founded by Western Allied Mechanical, Menlo Park, California, and Hermanson Co., Kent, Washington, the HMSE is a free program for underserved high school students and recent graduates, ranging in ages from 15 to 19, to gain exposure to the potential of a career in the plumbing, piping and sheet metal trades.
“We often talk about the fact that our industry does not have enough workers,” says Angie Simon, co-founder and executive director of the HMSE who recently retired as CEO of Western Allied. “In the next five to 10 years, 40 percent of our industry tradespeople will retire, and we are already short of people now.”
Since recruiting the next generation is so crucial to the industry, a creative outreach event such as a summer construction camp is vital to getting the word out to teens about the future of working in the trades.
“Our job is to give the students experiences to explore and let them find what they’re great at and where their natural genius is,” says Rick Hermanson, CEO of Hermanson Co. “This allows kids to find what success looks like for them and learn that the building trades offer great careers, pay well and creates the awareness that there are alternatives to college.”
Simon and Hermanson banded together for the first two camps in 2021. At the time, Simon was the president of the Sheet Metal Air Conditioning Contactors National Association, and she and Hermanson first talked up the idea during a work-force development panel at a SMACNA Edge Conference.
As it turned out, Simon didn’t have too far to look for her original inspiration. A year before the conference, she was speaking to Zachary Russi, who is now the president of Western Allied. Russi’s oldest son, then 14, loved welding and working with his hands. So the two got him together with the company’s shop superinten-dent for some after-school welding.
Simon’s story hits home considering all the laments we’ve heard about the demise of shop classes in high schools – just exactly the type of solid personal exposure Simon and Hermanson wanted for their idea of a program.
In short order, Simon put together a business plan for what became the HMSE. The duo also got help from SMACNA’s Washington Chapter and Construction for Change, a Seattle-based nonprofit construction company for funding and administrative support.
The HMSE curriculum, developed with guidance from local apprenticeship programs, gives students a vetted experience to include on future applications.
The pilot programs took place at Western Allied and Hermanson’s facilities and was attended by a total of 28 students, including six girls at Western Allied’s camp and 15 minorities (out of a total of 16 students) at Hermanson’s camp.
Each camp met two days a week in the afternoon for two-and-a-half-hour classes over six weeks. Classes were taught by the mechanical contractors’ own construction pros and covered the basics of sheet metal, piping and plumbing. In addition, project managers, engineers, safety officials and office personal volunteered as well, which created a ratio of one adult to every two students.
Throughout the camp, students learned all aspects of creating a project from start to finish by building a toolbox from sheet metal and a lamp out of copper pipe as well as welding belt buckles. To further learn about career paths, Western Allied’s student toured the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transpor-tation Local 104 training center and Hermanson’s student visited the SMART Local 66 training center.
“We tell the campers that when they reach 18 and graduate from high school,” Simon adds, “they can contact us to help them work through the process of what to do next for their careers.”
Thanks to some generous donations from other partners and sponsors, students were outfitted with a pair of their own Red Wing boots on the first day of the camp, along with other standard-issue construction PPE as well as a full toolkit, which was also theirs to take home upon graduation.
From the get-go, Simon and Hermanson had every intention to replicate the program at other mechanical contractors and industry-related sites such as Joint Apprentice Training Centers.
From those first two camps in 2021, HSME grew to 11 camps in five states that attracted 170 students in 2022 and to even bigger participation this summer.
This growth is built from the HMSE 125-page playbook, a practical blueprint to help others host a camp.
It starts with an overview of the construction industry’s hiring challenges, setting the stage for why this program is important for all contractors to embrace to amplify their hiring practices and overcome the workforce shortage.
The playbook includes everything needed to run a camp, including timelines, budgets, application forms, permission slips, work permits and safety documents. The playbook also provides contractors with sample lessons and projects for the camps and suggestions for working with local JATCs to get as many into the industry as possible.
“Our goal was to make the playbook an ‘easy button,’ ” Simon adds. “We tried to think of everything they might need to run the camp. I have received feedback from numerous camps last summer that the playbook was very valuable to help them plan their camps.”
Simon, however, says that the playbook is not a one-size-fits-all. Other contractors have featured other projects, such as electrical. Instead of a six-week game plan on weekdays, other contractors have shortened the overall time by holding five-day camps; others might want to double up the lessons and conduct camps on the weekends.
“We’re open to whatever schedule works,” Simon explains. “This year Hermanson and a number of other camps will meet three days a week for four weeks. We’d just love to have the students get about 30 hours of education.”
As for recruiting students, Western Allied partnered with local nonprofit Live in Peace (a partner in the HMSE), to identify its students. Live in Peace offers mentoring for students in the Bay Area who are considered by their high schools to be at-risk of dropping out. The organization screened candidates for the program on behalf of Western Allied, and a Live in Peace rep attended every session to help with any situations that might arise with the campers.
Meanwhile, Hermanson worked with the local school district to enlist students. Other suggestions for student recruitment included in the playbook include partnering with community colleges and trade schools.
50 Camps in 2024
As interest continues to grow for the HMSE, Simon says she hopes for 50 camps in 2024.
“I guess I’m supposed to be retired,” Simon adds. “But planning the HMSE is really my new full-time job.”
Earlier this year, Simon was presented with the inaugural Industry Advocate Award at the 2023 MEP Innovation Conference for her efforts to develop the HMSE. Following the award ceremony, MCAA, NECA and SMACNA announced that they would make a $10,000 donation to the HMSE on behalf of the MEP Innovation Conference.
SMACNA will also be promoting the HMSE as part of a broader effort to promote camps as an effective strategy to bolster workforce development in the communities around its contractor member businesses.
“While HMSE was run in summer,” adds Jeff Henriksen, SMACNA’s executive director of communications and marketing, “there are many ways to take the playbook and adapt it for after-school programs in the fall, for winter breaks, for weekends or evenings. It’s time contractors get creative while also having the opportunity to evaluate potential new hires and see which ones have real potential to join the team.”
The HMSE is also now a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit to help obtain funding to expand the program further. Corporate sponsors to date include DeWalt; Milwaukee Tool; Mastek Machinery; Makers Grant; Procore Construction Software; and SMACNA.
Some campers have gone on to enroll in an apprentice program or other technical training, but Simon reports that the HMSE has helped at least Western Allied recruit a seasoned pro.
“We offered a job to a senior project manager who was moving back to the Bay Area from Boston,” Simon adds. “He had three other job offers, but he chose Western Allied because he loved the idea of the camps and wanted to join a company that was making a difference.”
For more information on contributing to the HMSE or how to host a camp, visit www.hmse.org.