The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 16, 2008

Union apprentices are an investment worth protecting

By The Building Tradesman

By Mark Breslin
(Eleventh in a series)

What would you do if you watched someone kick a big dent in the door of your new F-150? Or someone spit on your new Justin boots? Or let their dog crap on your front lawn right in front of you? Or worse, what if someone was bullying your little brother every day by treating him with disrespect and negativity? Would you allow any of this? Would you take swift and terrible justice? Me too.

So why do we allow this to happen every day in our industry? Why do contractors and unions sit back and watch our most precious asset be dinged and damned and call it the price of admission. The asset: the fine young men and women apprentices that come to this industry hopeful, optimistic and malleable.

The scenario; the negative impact of 50 weeks a year being around one or more journeymen who influences them in a manner unacceptable to you, me and this proud industry. And it happens all the time on nearly every jobsite and we are doing very little to address it.

Before we look at the solutions, lets look at the impacts to our young apprentices:

  • How many of you have seen a fine young apprentice absolutely ruined by the negativity, bad attitude or poor work ethics of a limited number of journeymen?
  • At the end of the day, what do you think the impact is on our apprentice morale, buy-in, enthusiasm and retention?
  • How do you think the apprentice feels when he or she is making less money than some of these co-workers and they clearly see that performance and compensation do not tie together?
  • What do you think a third-year apprentice would say about this and their career choice?
  • How do we build an industry for the future if we allow the rationalization of this to continue?
  • How much money do we spend on training apprentices that do not perform to their potential as a result of this?

Across the nation tens of millions of dollars are wasted and thousands of impacted kids and careers are damaged every year; it is time for us to say enough is enough. And several methods need to be employed to protect both the apprentices and our investment in them.

First we must include positive treatment of apprentices in the various union codes of conduct and excellence. Apprentices must be valued and mentored by their older peers, not beat down or poorly led.

Secondly we must put the apprentices under "game conditions" before they go to the field. By using role-playing exercises in the classroom we can help apprentices prepare for many real-life challenges that absolutely will occur on the jobsite. Today, how do you think the average apprentice would react to:

  • Journeymen telling him or her to slow down?
  • Working on a crew where guys are cutting corners on quality or safety?
  • Witnessing drug use on the job?
  • Hearing a journeymen run down the contractor, the union or co-workers?
  • Seeing someone sexually or racially harassed?
  • Being asked to pad a time card or be complicit in something ethically unacceptable?

This is real life. This is the jobsite. This is peer pressure in their face. What do you think they do today? Nothing. They go with the flow because they have not been prepared for that very difficult moment. Whether you use the role-playing exercises in the Survival of the Fittest apprenticeship curriculum (see or develop your own, this is a critical model that is used by police, fire, the military and other organizations to improve performance under game conditions.

These young candidates are the best asset we have. They deserve more from us.

They deserve to be protected from negativity and disrespect. They deserve to be well-prepared for difficult jobsite circumstances. They deserve to have someone they can go to that they trust to help them sort these issues out. Because if they do not receive this support our entire investment in them and their future can be wiped out by a very small subset of journeymen who have personal issues and problems that they take out on others in the jobsite environment.

Now some guys will write this message off as too touchy feely. Old school says, "hey you just have to deal with it." Or "that is part of paying your dues."

But we are talking about people's lives and careers. We are talking about people's fulfillment and happiness at work. We are talking about hundreds of millions of training dollars on the line. It is time to protect our investment. We need to provide support for our greatest asset and bring the hammer down on those who put it at risk.

Yeah, like you're just going to sit there while someone kicks in the door on your truck.

Mark Breslin is a strategist and author specializing in labor-management challenges. He is the author of Survival of the Fittest, Organize or Die and coming in 2008 Alpha Dog. He addresses more than 50,000 labor and business leaders each year in North America. More on his work and profile is available at