An apprenticeship playbook from Sweenor Builders
Like many building companies, Sweenor Builders is facing the reality of the trades labor shortage. But in 2022, they took action by creating a new apprenticeship program that will bring a pipeline of young workers into the company. By investing in these young people, helping them “learn a skill and start a career,” they’re also strengthening the company ensuring it will have the labor needed to meet client demand for years to come, according to Sweenor’s Chief Performance and Safety Officer, Steve Canter who heads up the program.
Looking to begin something similar? Read on.
The program targets recent high school graduates who are interested in learning the “Sweenor way” — a focus on the highest-quality craftsmanship.
“You have to win over the parents as much as the kids,” Canter said. Many parents still believe college is the only path to a successful career. To help both parents and their kids see the opportunities available in the trades, Sweenor takes a multi-pronged approach to recruiting:
1. An open house targeting students and their parents gives the company an opportunity to both showcase their work and the job being offered.
Tip: Promoting the craftsmanship is as important as promoting the job. It excites passion in the students and helps parents understand that this opportunity is more than just a summer’s worth of work, it’s the start of a skill set that can launch their child’s career.
2. Leveraging social media has a similar effect. It allows Sweenor to promote their work and job opportunities to a broader audience within their community.
Tip: Facebook was a successful social channel for Sweenor because its audience skews older. Parents saw Sweenor’s job posting and passed it along to their children.
3. Outreach to local high schools with Career Technology Education (CTE) programming, which includes a focus on construction technology curriculum, helps as well. “I want to talk to anyone who needs help finding a career and doesn’t want to go to college,” Canter said.
Tip: Get involved in local schools by speaking at career exploration events. Some CTE programs have work-based learning hours. Participation in these kinds of opportunities can help youth become familiar with your company and give you a chance to start identifying good candidates.
Of course, attracting good candidates is only the first step.
Structuring the program for success
Creating a successful structure from the beginning is critical, according to Canter. The eight-week Sweenor program includes a guarantee of 40 hours of paid work plus 4.5 hours of learning time each week.
Tip: Some states, including Rhode Island where Sweenor is located, offer financial incentives to employers who provide work immersion or apprenticeship programs. Check to see if your state offers reimbursement for such programs.
Apprentices are embedded in crews with more experienced employees and sent to work on real job sites. Canter schedules apprentices each week, making sure they’ll be on sites where they can contribute. To pull this off, Canter collaborated with site supervisors and project managers to create a list of always-on tasks that apprentices can start doing on day one. “A job site can always be cleaner,” he said. But the goal is not to just give apprentices grunt work, it’s to begin developing their skill set, which is why there’s a learning component built in.
Tip: Delivering on a promise of full-time work requires purposeful scheduling. It’s important for someone within the organization to own this task and do it in collaboration with project managers and site supervisors.
Three days a week, apprentices gather at a job site — their classroom. There they receive 1.5 hours of instruction on topics like framing basics, intro to finish carpentry, job site terminology, tools, and safety. They’re taught by an experienced Sweenor employee (who’s paid to teach), and they’re among their peers so there's no pressure to immediately pick up a concept. They can ask questions and try things out. “The goal is to learn something on a Monday afternoon and apply it on a Tuesday,” Canter said.
Tip: Make safety a key part of the curriculum. Sweenor doesn’t just give apprentices tools and PPE, they also give them explicit instructions on how to use their tools and PPE effectively.
Moving from apprentice to full-time employee
Canter describes their program as an “eight-week interview.” All employees who work with the apprentices are asked to evaluate their attitude, behavior, character, ability to stay on task, tendency to take initiative, and more. Feedback is continual throughout the summer. “Real-time coaching is the best coaching,” Canter said.
At the end of the summer, they’re given a formal evaluation. “We owe them great feedback,” Canter said. Whether an apprentice is asked to transition to full-time employee or not, he wants them to understand why. Those who are asked to stay are offered $16/hour starting salary. With that starting salary comes profit sharing, continual evaluation, and the opportunity for a raise every six months. After the inaugural summer, three out of the five summer apprentices were hired on as full-time employees.
Tip: Understanding how many apprentices you can support is key, according to Canter. The promise of 40-hours of work per week is one Sweenor takes seriously, and that’s why they don’t plan to scale their program beyond five students next year.
There’s no doubt about it, the Sweenor Builders program is resource intensive. Between the instruction, scheduling, and evaluation — it’s no small undertaking, but Canter said the return on investment is high. The program is creating a stream of new workers with the skills needed to keep the company strong and able to meet client demand and expectations for years to come.
Up next: Learn more about an innovative high school program that’s focused on developing the next generation of trades professionals.