When Ryan Bennett, business agent of the West Michigan Plumbers, Fitters and Service Trades Local #174 based in Coopersville, hears companies complaining about the struggles of finding talented workers, he said he can’t help but notice that most of those companies don’t take an active role in developing their current and future workforces.
“We’ve kept an eye on the industry and stayed on top of where it’s going and figured out ways to teach our workers,” Bennett told MiBiz.
Through apprenticeship programs and continuous training, licensing and certification offerings, the plumbers union has worked to provide its members with the skills they need to be employable by the handful of union shops spread throughout West Michigan. And it’s all self-funded by member dues with no public funds involved, he said.
The union leadership believes its model of apprenticeships and constant learning that it applies in the mechanical contracting industry could be attractive to manufacturers looking for a better way to identify and maintain a skilled workforce. The union doesn’t rely on community colleges or technical schools for teaching its workers all the skills they need. Much of the training and professional development comes from in-house.
“If you go to a manufacturing setting and talk about what we do in a generic way — what if workers showed up with safety training, a substance abuse (testing) card and training to do the job? — they would say they’d love to have that,” said Mark Mangione, the local’s business manager. “Well, we’ve been doing that for over 100 years. That story needs to be told. There are employers in the private sector that would love to have that.”
Key to the process is keeping an open dialogue with contractors to ensure workers have the skills they need to do the current jobs in the marketplace, Bennett said. All the workers come to the work site with the proper safety training, but it’s important that they keep up on the certifications and training to meet the needs of the existing jobs, he said.
For example, when construction was booming on the Medical Mile, the local gave its members training and certification courses in medical gas systems, a certification which was needed for contractors to secure the contracts.
Bennett said the local tries to keep about 100 apprentices at any given time. That volume of workers helps ensure the local retains a good median age of its workforce, which is important as the overall set of skilled tradesmen continues to age, he said.
The local recently finished construction on a 16,000-square-foot addition to the training facility at its Coopersville headquarters. As the organization kept adding equipment for the members to train on, it simply ran out of space, Bennett said.
“We’re set up for more practical training, and that’s something we can market with,” he said. “We can train on all facets of pipe fitting, HVAC, plumbing and welding, and we can take people through and show them what it looks like.”
That training is especially important as the mechanical contracting industry continues to change, Mangione said. No longer can the union’s members just be proficient in a narrow skill and expect to work all the time. The changing nature of the industry necessitates that the members need training in a broad range of skills.
“They’ve got to have skills as a plumber, fitter, welder and everything in between,” Bennett said. “If they can be a plumber, welder and fitter, they can be more employable. … And we’ve followed the market like anything else. We’ve priced ourselves to what the market would allow.”
Bennett is quick to note that discussions about unions need not always keep coming back to the stereotypical adversarial relationships between labor and management and between union and non-union shops. He said the local is talking about its model of training because it wants to help local companies be more successful, which could lead to more business for the local contractor base.
“We’ll do better if the West Michigan economy does better,” Bennett said. “We need people with jobs and (companies) willing to expand. … If people are not building stuff, we’re not working.”
Mangione said forced unionism just does not exist in West Michigan.
“It’s the choice of our employers to have the burden of manpower taken off them. When they ask us for people with specific skills, they get them,” Mangione said. “They choose to be signatory contractors because of the availability of manpower. We have the people to do the work, and that takes the guesswork out of their business plan.”
But Mangione and Bennett acknowledge that their message – of a ready and available skilled workforce – has an uphill climb in West Michigan, which is traditionally not a hotbed for union activity, especially when compared to the east side of the state.
“There are these negative connotations that surround unions in West Michigan and that sets the conversation at a disadvantage in West Michigan,” Bennett said. “We take on the training and health care funds and the pension costs – and we don’t burden our contractors.”
To help ameliorate the union’s perception, the local has made an effort to get more involved in the business community and start telling its story and informing the workforce development conversation. The union joined some of the local chambers of commerce and workforce development boards to help the groups understand the issues from the union’s point of view.
“We’re elevating our business model out there to the rest of the world,” Mangione said. “It seems to be well-received, and that makes us wonder if we should have been sitting at the table telling our story all this time. But we’re not looking back. We’re looking forward. We need to make sure that we can adapt.”