‘They are…its strength’

ABC-VA Level 3 Electrical and HVAC classes preparing for jobsite tour during class.

In anticipation of National Apprenticeship Week (Nov. 12-18), I sat down with more than 250 students enrolled in various trades of construction in apprenticeship and craft training programs managed by Associated Builders & Contractors, Virginia Chapter (ABC-VA).

The number of students I interviewed represents about half of the apprentices and craft workers enrolled in ABC-VA managed programs in Richmond, and about a quarter of almost 1,000 apprentices and craft workers enrolled in ABC-VA managed programs across the state.

While the nation devotes one specific week to apprenticeship and craft training, ABC-VA devotes every week to apprenticeship and craft training. Whether or not classes are actively “in session,” we are always striving to fill those seats. How do we expand on that effort? I decided to look at the current classes and asked the following questions:

1. Why did you choose the construction industry for your career? Would you recommend construction as a career choice for the next generation? If so, why?

2. What do you like/dislike about the industry?

3. Where do you want to go in your career?

4. How do you perceive the industry and your role in it?

5. Any additional thoughts?

One of my favorite responses was from an already established journeyman electrician who said boldly, “We are ‘gods’ among men.” This elicited a laugh from me and a few others in the class until the rest of the students chimed in, and I realized this statement was about a strong sense of pride in the trade – one I have not seen in my 18-plus years in the industry. It would also be a theme that would continue throughout all of the classes I spoke with.

They came to the industry via many paths:

  • Some are next-generation workers, including second, third, and even fourth generation workers. There are also same-generation workers recruited by a brother, sister and/or other family member. We discussed the family factor at length. In the 1970s, most construction workers were next-generation workers. It was completely about pride. The big shift came after an industry slowdown when parents decided they wanted a “better and easier” life for their children, and schools pushed for a college degree to be the “better measure of success.”

  • Some came to the industry by way of job ads, having tried something else: Retail, retired military, college dropouts, and college completers who could not find work in their chosen field of study. One student taught biology at a local high school. He worked in the industry in both the electrical and HVAC fields during summers in high school, college, and while teaching. He realized he made more money doing construction and pursued it full-time. He is currently a licensed electrician and is cross-training as an HVAC apprentice with aspirations to own his own business one day.

  • Some were recruited in high school by technical education instructors who visited their schools. Through school-to-work partnerships between ABC-VA and local school systems, these very students were able to earn at least one year of related instruction in high school and on-the-job training credit, making them more employable immediately after graduation.

  • Some have been in the industry and have simply been underemployed – not realizing the potential for growth.

  • Some came to the industry through community outreach programs being offered a second-chance during transition after a life hardship.

  • Others just fell into it by chance, liked it, and stuck with it.

Almost every student said he/she would recommend apprenticeship as a career choice because you immediately “Earn while you learn,” and, “Like a construction building, you have nowhere to go but up.” They smiled and spoke strongly about their sense of achievement.

Likes included:

• “I’m building a part of the community I live in.”

• “I like making someone’s day because I fixed something for them.”

• “I feel accomplished because I can say I was a part of making that.”

• “I work with my hands and my brain.”

• “I get to see every phase of the project coming together.”

The “dislikes” list was not as long or varied. The answers mainly revolved around their love/hate relationship of the seasons, the negative stigma about the industry, and feeling underappreciated. One plumber in particular said, “Everyone thinks we’re just about toilets and sinks. They don’t appreciate what we do because in the end, it’s covered up by drywall and paint.”

I became excited about this specific answer. I pulled up Facebook on the computer and found a post from one of my friends in the flooring sector of the industry. I shared the photo and the quote from Web Stokes, KOSTER American Corp., to which the class applauded and responded, “Now, we’re artists as well!”

They all look to complete their respective programs of study. Some want to cross-train. Some want to teach. Many want to move up the ranks of their companies and possibly one day own their own businesses. They want to give back. They want to follow in the footsteps of their own local heroes – their parents, grandparents, their co-workers and teachers. With each trade, I shared success stories of former graduates and teachers with whom they are familiar. You can read about them in the full story online at

richmond.com/va-up-to-code.

Contact Darlene Hart at darlene@abcva.org.

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