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Stopping the brain drain

As longtime industry executives and supervisors started to retire, SMACNA Colorado members realized there weren’t enough workers with leadership skills ready to replace them. Elite Academy aims to fix that.    

Elite Academy is a SMACNA Colorado program that aims to teach third- and fourth-year sheet metal apprentices the lessons that may be left out of industry training classes: profitability, business management and personal communication. 

Did you ever wish that someone had taught you the ins and outs of project estimating when you were starting your career? 

Or the right way to communicate your concerns to an owner or general contractor? 

Would that information have come in handy? Nathan Cooper thinks so. The executive director of Denver-based SMACNA Colorado says teaching union apprentices essential skills and knowledge not typically found in the classroom is critical to this industry’s future. 

What is Elite Academy?
Teaching these skills is the goal behind Elite Academy, a three-year-old, 40-hour educational program started by SMACNA Colorado with help from member contractors. It relies on executives from some of the most successful sheet metal contractors in the state to share their expertise with third- and fourth-year apprentices identified among the top students in their class. 

It offers apprentices the chance to ask questions of executives and business owners, learn from their mistakes and discover if they want to embark on a leadership career path. Held at the joint apprenticeship training center in Denver, students attend classes and panel discussions on subjects such as project estimating, career development, business operations and market conditions. 

Tuition is paid by their employers. The classes are held one day a month for five months. 

The idea for the academy came from conversations Cooper had with SMACNA Colorado members about workforce struggles they were having. A common complaint, he said, was companies were losing the institutional knowledge of supervisors and executives as these older workers retired. They weren’t sure where replacements would come from. It’s still difficult to attract young people to the trade, they said. Plus, many younger sheet metal workers didn’t seem interested in becoming managers. 

“The thought was that we need to do a lot better job finding and developing talent,” Cooper said. 

As it turned out, the industry has a lot of great talent, he said. It just needs to work on developing it. And that’s where Elite Academy comes in. 

It focuses business and personal development 
Working with SMACNA Colorado board members and construction industry consultant Nic Bittle, Cooper created a curriculum that focuses on personal development and problem solving, along with industry issues such as market awareness and labor productivity. 

A frequent guest speaker at SMACNA conferences and events, Bittle teaches academy courses on subjects such as leadership, discipline and communication. 
Cooper has an exciting and relatable way of talking to students.

“He’s like what I would call a ‘foreman whisperer,’” Cooper said. “He’s really good at communicating how to deal with conflict and how to motivate people.”

Elite Academy graduate Alexander Christoff, 24, would like to own a sheet metal company one day. The lessons he learns through the academy will be helpful in reaching that goal, he says. 

Classes are taught by executives
Other courses, dealing with topics like the importance of mentorship, and figuring out overhead costs, are taught by representatives from SMACNA Colorado member companies such as Hercules Industries; Colorado Sheet Metal; US Engineering; and Skyline Heating, Air Conditioning and Sheet Metal. Cooper also leads a workshop.

Dan Grady is one of the academy’s instructors. The vice president of manufacturing operations at Denver-based Hercules Industries, Grady teaches classes on mentoring, career goals and the difficulties of ensuring projects are profitable.  

An industry veteran of more than 20 years, Grady said he became involved in the Elite Academy because he was tired of seeing vocational education dismissed by school districts and the public. 
“I think that the promotion of the trades has just been really undervalued and underappreciated,” he said. It’s part of the reason for the chronic skilled trades worker shortage.  

Grady said the academy is an opportunity to change that. Thanks to the lessons from board members and each other, students have a chance to learn the interpersonal skills that will serve them well not only in their careers, but in life, too. 

“What it really comes down to is just how are you as a person and how do you interact with other people?” Grady said. “Why is that important? What does that mean on a job site? Not only with your colleagues and other trades, but potential business owners, engineers, inspectors.”

Soft skills are as important as hard skills
Grady teaches what body language says to an owner or general contractor. If you slouch in your chair or roll your eyes, it could jeopardize the project, he said.   

“Those soft skills have to be just as promoted and instructed and taught as much as fab layout and how to install a slip-on flange or how to properly cut in for an access door. All of those things are vitally important.”

Besides teaching such soft skills, Grady said he was excited for the opportunity to clear up the misconceptions among some academy students about just how profitable sheet metal work is — especially large, multi-million-dollar projects. 

As any HVAC or sheet metal business owner knows, landing a big project is no guarantee of making money on it, Grady pointed out. 

Dan Grady

“You have to be very consistent and have a high level of precision in what you’re doing,” he said. “We break down some major projects and start to talk about what the gross margin percentages are, and what a successful project looks like when a contractor does make money on a project. And I think what was most eye-opening (for students) for the few years that we’ve done this is just how narrow of margins we’re working on.” 

It doesn’t matter whether you’re working on a $100,000 contract, a $5 million contract or a $100 million contract, Grady said. It’s easy for a few mistakes to snowball and turn a profitable project into a money loser — especially if you don’t correct problems early. 

If they want to advance in their careers, knowledge in areas such as finance is critical for academy students, Cooper said. And it’s important for company leadership to have confidence that there are employees qualified and ready to take over when opportunities arise. 

Grady said he wishes he’d spent more time learning those financial lessons when he was starting in the industry. But he’s glad he knows them now and has the opportunity to share those lessons with others.
“It’s just a lot of fun to be able to use those numbers and those metrics to help support a good project and allow us to continuously improve on the next project,” he said.  

The lack of future leaders was frustrating 
Gary Venable, the president and owner of Colorado Sheet Metal in Colorado Springs, Colo., said he became involved in the academy because it was a chance to fix the lack of future leaders he was seeing in graduating apprentices. 

“We weren’t producing leaders and we saw that as our failure,” Venable said. “We’d see people with potential leave for a different career or different industry altogether. And we decided that we could do something to create buzz and interest in being a leader.”

A possible reason why fewer sheet metal apprentices and workers seem interested in being leaders, he said, is they don’t have mentors to help guide them. Venable said he was fortunate to have several mentors when he started in the sheet metal industry. Not enough students have that chance today. 

“They kind of took me under their wings and showed me the ropes and gave me the opportunities. And I think that was what we really wanted to do with this program,” he said.  

For many apprentices, how people end up as supervisors or business owners can be a mystery, Venable said. The academy committee wants 
to change that. 

“We felt it was important for them to see what management does,” he said. “We give them our path, how we got to where we’re at. It can be from attending school and going directly into management out of college, or it can be similar to my path. I served an apprenticeship and worked my way up to owning a company.” 

Academy students are enthusiastic 
Geoff Lockley, 29, is a journeyman sheet metal worker at MechOne Inc. in Colorado Springs. He was among the academy’s first graduates in 2020. Lockley said he never thought about a construction career until he got out of the Army and learned how much money he could earn in sheet metal. 

The Elite Academy program showed Lockley that he made the right choice.

“It was very clear to me that the Elite (Academy) program was the direct path to success in this career,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a direct path to keeping a job, having success and being more than just a journeyman.”

For a long time, Lockley was interested in owning his own sheet metal company. But after hearing what SMACNA contractors go through to keep their businesses going, he’s not as sure.  

“The elite apprenticeship program made me take a step back,” he said. “This actually opened my eyes. I said ‘OK, hold on. I want to learn a lot more.’” 

Lockley would still like to eventually move into the front office in a decade or so. And Lockley said participating in the Elite Academy could help him reach that goal. 

“I would love to be an estimator,” he said. “I would like to be on the sales side. I sold cars at the end of my high school career before I went to the Army. I just love sales. I feel personable. And now that I know sheet metal, I feel like I can actually sell it.“And now whenever I have any issues … I can call my other (academy) peers and say, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing over (there)? What would you do in this situation?’” 

Classes offer a new perspective
Alexander Christoff, 24, is another recent academy graduate and MechOne employee. He said he would like to move into project management. Like Lockley, he also believes the Elite Academy could help him reach that goal. 

Hearing about the experiences of people who either owned their own companies or were in executive positions gave him a perspective he hadn’t considered before, he said. 

“I think it was very helpful getting to hear all their different perspectives and getting to hear about some of their failures,” Christoff said, adding, “so I hopefully won’t repeat them.” 
Long-term, Christoff has goals beyond project management.  

“I see that almost as a stepping stone into running my own company,” he said. “Obviously project management is a lot more intimate, business-wise, because you’re really digging into how many hours are left, the cost of product A versus product B — even though they do the exact same thing. And I would like to get more experience before I jump into that end of the pool, but it’s definitely something I’ve considered and talked about.” 

In addition to the classes on business management, Christoff said he found the sessions that dealt with communication and conflict resolution to be especially helpful — personally and professionally. 

“I had really bad anger issues and I’m still working on them,” he said. “These classes kind of helped me realize we’re all here just to do our jobs.”

Program is ‘highly recommended’
Christoff said anyone who is picked to attend Elite Academy should take the opportunity. 

“I would most definitely recommend it,” he said. “If we want to get better as a trade, we have to invest in ourselves. And I think that this was a great investment.”

Cooper said the feedback on the academy from students and SMACNA members has been very positive. 

“We were pleasantly surprised with the talent that we found after going through these five classes,” he said. “And from the participant’s perspective, this is not your typical apprenticeship class. It’s not something that your foreman or anybody above that is going to have time to sit down and talk to you about on a job site. 

“You can see those wheels start to turn in a lot of those elite apprentices: ‘How do I go from apprentice and beyond?’ I just really think it lit a spark in a lot of them,” Cooper said.

Some of the academy’s recent graduates have gone on to become managers and estimators, he added.