As the director of a national training program for plasterers, I help develop and implement training criteria and curriculum materials for young people just entering the trade. So, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to witness young men and women, who’ve got a few years under their belt, excelling at the craft-especially in a down economy!
Such was the case when I was asked to be a judge in the Great Lakes Apprenticeship Competition, held recently in conjunction with the Ohio State Fair. The event dates its origins back to 1982 when the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ union first approached the Ohio State Fair Commission about using their venue to showcase the work of the plastering and concrete trades. Throughout all these years, the union training programs have performed work on the fairgrounds as part of their training program, and in exchange they receive prime real estate during the fair to perform their contest and other types of trade demonstrations.
Contestants from throughout Ohio, Indiana and Michigan packed their tool bags and came to the State Fair eager (and a tad nervous) to go head-to-head with their young peers. Nail-biting apprenticeship instructors, spouses and families were in tow. The contestants’ experience ranged from four years to just 15 months. Apprentice Josh Hughes from Cincinnati had entered his apprenticeship in May 2009 after reading a brochure on union training programs offered from a friend of his who was an apprentice pipefitter. He had never seen the tools of the trade prior, yet finished with a very respectable third place overall in this competition.
Two Intense DaysThe contest consisted of two full days of plasterwork. Day 1 found the contestants applying a basecoat of veneer gypsum plaster, sticking EIFS foam and laying out and placing quoins and aesthetic reveals. They also had to construct a crown molding template from nothing but an architectural drawing and raw materials. Day 2 consisted of running the crown mold in situ, (the Latin term used by ancient plasterers for “in place”) mitering the intersecting corner, smooth trowel the veneer plaster on the ceiling and offering a texture of choice on the walls. A medium to course acrylic finish was applied to the EIFS portion of the project.
The judging criteria included:
- Proper use of tools and materials
- Safety, neatness and amount of wasted material
- Accuracy of the project to the blueprints and specifications
- Quality of the mold and construction of the template
- Overall quality of the project
The contestants were given the same amount of every material needed to complete the project. They were permitted to use their own tools, but no tool could be modified from its “off-the-shelf” condition and nothing could be prefabricated before the event began.
I spent the days monitoring the contestant’s activities, admiring their attention to detail and the tenacity each displayed, which revealed to me a deep-seeded hunger to be really good at what they do. I wondered to myself, “How are these young men holding up in this slow economy?” Somewhat to my surprise, and much to my delight, each reported relatively steady employment. Even Sam Job, a contestant from Detroit, said that his employer has kept him “busy” even in one of the hardest hit of the urban areas in America. As I interviewed each apprentice and their instructor, a common theme began to emerge: the virtues that drove an apprentice to want to compete in such as contest, were the same virtues that have permitted these young men to remain gainfully employed.
“The ones who are working right now are the cream of the crop. Just like this young man,” says Steve Batanjek, Instructor, Local 67, in Detroit.
So what characteristics determine who constitutes as the “cream of the crop?” In 1886, William Millar wrote, “The plasterers’ craft is one which shows the individuality of the workman’s touch, an essential feature … demanding some exercise of brain, as well as skill.”
Train the YoungMy organization’s sole objective is to train and place young men and women for entry jobs in the plastering and cement mason trades. When we talk to employers about what they need, when we look at the behaviors of our students who are successful vs. those who are not, the one demonstrable trait is clear: Attitude.
Attitude drives all behavior. If we have a negative attitude about work in general or about who we work for, we tend to underperform. Same thing can be said about school or marriage. But if we have an attitude of pride in our work, that reflects in the quality and productivity we achieve each and every day. So, when I watched these young men actually competing with one another for nothing more than bragging rights, I am not at all surprised that each of them are considered by their employer as essential to the success of their business, even in a down economy.
Now, before I get notes from readers saying, “I’ve got a great attitude, but I’m still unemployed. You’re full of it,” I fully acknowledge that these are difficult times, and even some of the very best and brightest are experiencing hardships. But the simple truth is that employers want to stay in business, they make money when they are performing jobs, and the better attitude their crews have, the better job they perform. Contracting is a gamble, and any gambler will tell you that “you always put your money on a sure thing.”
These young contestants get it. They’ve been coached by the best and they’ve taken those lessons to heart. That’s what makes such events as the Great Lake’s Apprenticeship Contest so important. It reminds us all about the passion of youth, the value of mentoring, the importance of our trade to the construction industry and America, and of what matters most of all: Attitude.