Skilled workers are hard to find, so a Lancaster County mechanical contractor created a training program that allows it to hire employees with zero experience and train them in the field.
The company, Frey Lutz Corp., just needs people with the right work ethic and a willingness to learn.
“We are hoping to attract people who have been in the workforce but not necessarily in a trade,” said Marci Gohn, director of marketing and business development for Frey Lutz, which is based in West Hempfield Township. “They are hard workers and they show up to work but they are looking for more of a career. That’s the type of person we are after.”
The program is called Trades Basic Training, and it addresses a challenge faced by a host of firms in manufacturing, construction and related trades: They are having trouble finding and hiring people in the skilled trades as fewer young people acquire the know-how for jobs such as plumber and sheet-metal mechanic.
And the labor market overall is tight. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Lancaster County had an unemployment rate of 3 percent in March, down from a high of 8.8 percent in 2010.
“We have been told by a number of companies that if someone applies for a job with them and they have a valid driver’s license, can pass a drug test and have a record of employment, their chances of hiring them are 90 percent,” said William Griscom, president of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, which is in Lancaster.
A wider search
Frey Lutz is a mechanical contractor with 150 employees and annual revenue of about $40 million. It provides heating, air conditioning and plumbing in commercial, industrial and residential settings across Central Pennsylvania.
The Frey Lutz training program promises to broaden the pool from which the company can hire. Where it once only accepted applications from individuals with relevant licenses and experience, it will now be actively searching for potential employees without experience or licensure.
For the launch of the program, the company is looking for eight to ten employees with little to no experience in a skilled trade. They will go through three weeks of hands-on training in subjects like tool identification, safety, reading a tape measure, basic plumbing and basic sheet-metal mechanic trades.
From there, they will be assigned to seasoned Frey Lutz employees who will act as their mentors for a year.
The mentors will compensated for the extra work of mentoring. Gohn said the employees who signed up as mentors have shown interest in gaining experience so they can move up into leadership positions.
“We are getting to train the new employee and the mentor is getting leadership experience,” Gohn said.
The new employees also will choose whether they want to become a pipe fitter or a sheet-metal mechanic. Pipe fitters work on the plumbing for construction projects, while sheet-metal mechanics mold and weld sheet metal for HVAC ducts.
Frey Lutz expects the program to cost approximately $3,000 per trainee.
“Your other options when you need labor and you can’t find skilled mechanics is to look at a temp agency and you aren’t getting skilled workers,” Gohn said. “We wanted to invest in people who wanted to work and wanted a career.”
The company doesn’t expect its new pipe fitters or sheet-metal mechanics to be masters of their trade within a year. However, the benefit of an in-house training program, according to Gohn, is that new employees will be inclined to join the company to learn the trade and could be self-sufficient within the first year or two.
Employees that want to become plumbers will need another year of experience before they can get licensed to practice their trade, but Gohn said the company is willing to help employees through the licensing process.
Sheet-metal mechanics should build enough experience in their first year to be able to work on projects on their own, according to Aaron Bankowski, the company’s director of field operations.
Employees that stay with the program for at least a year will pay back the company’s investment in their education. If the company can retain four to five employees after that time, Gohn said the company will view the program as a success.
Frey Lutz is now hiring people for the positions and has already approved four individuals. Gohn expects to reevaluate the program’s success in three months to ensure that the new employees are happy and engaged. Frey Lutz also will decide then if it wants to continue the program and how often.