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ON-THE-JOB TRAINING: Logan Etheridge with Donco 3 Construction works on an underpass project at Missouri State University. Etheridge is one of the company's four employees in a new apprenticeship program.
Rebecca Green | SBJ
ON-THE-JOB TRAINING: Logan Etheridge with Donco 3 Construction works on an underpass project at Missouri State University. Etheridge is one of the company's four employees in a new apprenticeship program.

Competitors join forces for apprenticeships

Advanced Concrete and Donco 3 aim to fill workforce gap

Posted online

Acting on a shared need to add more employees to their rosters, a pair of competitors in the commercial concrete industry have invested in their own apprenticeship program.

The Concrete Worker Apprenticeship Program, which started last month and is registered through the U.S. Department of Labor, includes four days of on-site work at construction projects and a fifth day of classroom instruction at Ozarks Technical Community College. Funding the program is Springfield-based Advanced Concrete Technology Inc. and Marshfield-based Donco 3 Construction LLC.

Sherry Coker, executive director of OTC’s Center for Workforce Development, said she was approached last year by Advanced Concrete and Donco 3 officials about their desire to collaborate on the program.

“This is truly an employer-led program. I worked with them to help identify the right curriculum, which was based on national curriculum for concrete workers,” she said, noting each company has four apprentices in the three-year program.

The companies pay OTC $1,400 per semester, or $2,800 per school year, for each of its apprentices, who also are employees from day one. Each semester includes 80 hours of classroom instruction. At the end of the three-year program, the apprentices receive a certificate from the Labor Department and National Center for Construction Education and Research.

Reaching workers
At Donco 3, husband-and-wife owners Aaron and Rachel York say their 12-year-old company has invested in its employees with benefits designed to keep them on board long term.

“We’d already structured our business to where we’ve got paid vacations, paid holidays, an (individual retirement account) and health insurance we pay for,” Aaron York said.

However, he said the apprenticeship program was a method to reach workers who might otherwise not consider the concrete industry as a viable career path. Apprentices in the program are paid by the companies and start at $17 an hour, with pay increasing annually to $20 an hour by the end of the three years, he said.

Donco 3 employs 55 currently, but the Yorks say they could use 10 additional workers now. Bill Textor, president at Advanced Concrete, said his employee count is at 70, adding the 27-year-old company could probably take on 20-30 more but isn’t wanting to do that solely through apprentices.

“I need skilled labor,” he said, noting he’s turned away work in the past three years due to his employee shortage.

The discussion of needing skilled labor was something that led Rector to reach out to Donco 3, after Rachel York said she and Aaron had covered the topic in a video last year. Both companies have a mutual concern of an aging workforce.

“We’re competitors but we’re also friendly and social with one another,” Aaron York said. “My best guys at the company are about 45-55 years old. What happens in 10 or 15 more years when my 45-55-year-old guys are retiring?”

York said launching the program with a competitor came down to looking at the greater good for the industry.

“I probably would have had some hesitation with some other contractors, but Bill lines up with my same belief of what this is about,” he said.

Textor said he’s had the idea to start an apprenticeship program for around a decade.

“It just kept being shoved down the road,” he said. “I can’t really put 20 or even 10 brand-new employees to work for an apprenticeship program. I just don’t have that kind of room for growth. I can do four or five.”

The concrete worker program adds to a growing list of registered apprenticeships across the state. In fiscal 2021, the most recent data available from the Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development, Missouri had 14,520 active apprentices across 460 registered programs. The state currently ranks third in the nation for completed apprenticeships, fourth nationally for new apprentices and sixth for active apprentices. Since October 2019, Missouri has had 20,285 new apprentices and 8,140 completed apprenticeships.

Common concern
Both the Yorks and Textor agree that it’s hard to find good employees. It’s a common refrain from many industries, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic, as people dropped out of the workforce or went in a different professional direction.

“What we find is that we end up with a lot of employees who are there not as a career and not choosing it as a career,” Textor said, noting his company’s work incorporates labor, ironwork, equipment operators, carpenters and cement masons. “They’re falling back to it because career paths weren’t chosen. We’re hurting for leadership and hurting for people coming into it as a career. We want people who have ambitions to advance into leadership, whether they’re running crews or doing layout, estimates.

“We want to prepare them for a career path where they have more than just a job and a paycheck.”

At OTC, the program is taught by Bruce Irmen, a retired longtime employee of Advanced Concrete, Textor said. During the week, the apprentices also work with a mentor who teaches them on job sites for the two companies.

“The commitment that we’re making is that these employees that we’re going to invest money in and put through class, we’re going to keep them employed,” Textor said.

Textor credits OTC’s Coker for facilitating development of the program, which included training Irmen for classroom instruction – something he had never done before.

“She’s been the glue that kind of held it all together,” he said. “We just worked with her to make it happen.”

Coker said she was impressed with the commitment the companies had from the very beginning of planning for the program.

“In today’s day and time, students have so many different choices that having an employer recognize the value of what OTC brings to the table in terms of the assistance we can provide with the educational training piece of this was so important,” she said.

Because the program isn’t accredited, there’s no funding available for the employers to access, Coker said. However, it’s a long-term goal to make the course Pell Grant eligible.

“Because it’s so new and we’re trying it out, that option isn’t available to us just yet,” she said.

Textor and the Yorks also hope to inspire other commercial concrete companies to invest in the apprenticeship program.

“If other contractors would jump on board, then that would just grow the program,” Aaron York said.

While it will take several years for the program’s impact to be felt, Textor said starting this now was an investment in the future.

“I could probably retire with the people that I’ve got,” he said. “What I’m looking to do is maintain. I’d like my company to be around for a couple generations down the road. I’d like to leave a legacy.”

Comments

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user43010

I understand the desire to change professions. I've done so several times. Workers want to feel like they have room for growth and have some ownership in what they will be doing for decades of their mortal lives. Who wants to work back-breaking jobs to give their boss a new car or house while they scrape by? Well, they leave for greener pastures and the opportunity to make more and provide for their family. Businesses hurting for employees may consider profit sharing and allowing their employees to unionize.

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