The Answer to the Current Skills Shortage Starts with Training Your Own

By Andrew Lahr, Nexstar Network Communications Specialist

“With great leadership comes great responsibility.” The old adage is often overused, and for good reason. Leadership and responsibility are intimately connected, regardless of industry or circumstance. What makes a great leader in the trades? And for that matter, what actions are leaders within our industry practicing each day to ensure the health and long-term success of the skilled trades?In an age where high school students are almost universally being steered toward four-year degrees, companies within our industry have spent the better part of the last decade attempting to stanch the bleeding when it comes to staffing and holding onto talented and motivated individuals.Even with the support of a network of like-minded businesses, finding great talent can still seem like an impossible task for many Nexstar members. Thankfully, a handful of member companies have successfully managed to deal with the shortage of skilled tradespeople, largely through creativity, foresightedness, and patience.

One of those companies is Barker & Sons Plumbing & Rooter. Based in the famed and highly populated Orange County metro area in Southern California, Barker & Sons is a fairly new member of the Nexstar family. They’ve just passed their one-year anniversary, and have dove head-first into the vast ocean of Nexstar resources and support systems.

Their regular morning routine reflects the team’s full embrace of their Nexstar membership. Techs clad in boot covers watch Wake Up Call videos together to reinforce the training they’ve received during Nexstar’s Service System, a class designed to train technicians to deliver superior customer experiences and increase sales opportunities.

In their short time with Nexstar, owners Mike and Brenda Barker have had enormous success growing their company by 50 percent throughout this past year. They’ve also exemplified the Nexstar principle, “Success through education and sharing,” in their recent effort to invest profits into training and developing young people considering the trades.

Bringing a Trade School to Orange County

Calm, commanding, and with an ever-present air of wisdom, Mike is a tradesman through and through. He’s a third-generation plumber with nearly 40 years of experience as a technician, manager, and owner. When speaking fondly of his own training and career as a technician, Mike’s overwhelming love of the trades came to the forefront.

“I started my training back in 1979 when I attended trade school in Los Angeles County. After I graduated, I grew to love everything about being a tech, and especially enjoyed having the opportunity to talk to new people in their homes each day. Heck, I’d probably still be out there if I didn’t eventually injure my back.”

Mike is more than a business owner within the Anaheim community. He’s served several terms as president of Orange County’s Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC), an organization focused on finding and developing local talent in the trades.

Unlike Los Angeles County, Orange County didn’t have a trade school up until Mike suggested it to the PHCC Board of Directors in 2011. Their local membership was already diminishing, and Mike felt as though a local trade school in the area would make the organization significant again. It wasn’t an easy task, especially considering the investment.

“We knew that we would lose money at first, and of course the board didn’t like that. We discussed the idea for some time, but one thing I’ve learned is that anyone can talk about ideas. It takes commitment and follow-through to actually carry out something as big as founding a school. I had to keep pressing because I knew that we needed a school to secure the future of our industry within the Anaheim area. Eventually, I convinced them that in the long run the school would pay off, and after a couple of years it did – in a big way. I’m proud to say that school is now operating at capacity. Student participation rose from a handful to over a hundred enrolled within just under a decade.”

This year alone, Barker & Sons have paid for thirteen students of varying ages and experiences to go through their local trade school.

Making the Effort to Find Quality People

When asked about the current state of our industry and the primary challenges business owners face each day, Mike responded quickly and confidently.

“I learned early on in my career that finding quality people is, by far, the biggest issue that we face on a day-to-day basis. How we go about addressing that issue is what separates successful companies from the rest. Over the years, I’ve learned that the best solution is the one that many businesses have realized but failed to implement.

You have to invest in the future of the trades. You have to grow your own, and that starts with getting young people interested in our industry.”

One of the biggest ways that Barker & Sons has been able to attract talented individuals out of high school has been through reaching out directly. Mike asks if he can speak to students face-to-face about careers in the trades. He noted the reactions of both students and teachers when he describes the compensation that’s possible just a few years out of school.

“Careers in the trades don’t have a financial problem. They have a PR problem. I’ve seen teachers’ mouths drop when I describe the fact that tradespeople can be making considerably more than their own salaries once they’ve gotten through their apprenticeships. I think a lot of companies fail to see the benefit of going out to these schools and spreading the word about compensation and job security to high schoolers. It’s definitely been a huge part of our recent success.”

In addition to reaching out to local high school students, Mike and Brenda have gone all in on their Ride and Decide program. They first heard about the program from fellow Nexstar member Gino Caccia of James Caccia Plumbing, located just north of them near San Francisco.

“The Ride and Decide program is all about giving students a taste of the daily life of a tradesperson,” said Mike. “We reach out to high schoolers, and if they’re interested in learning about a career in the trades, we pay them to ride along with a tech for a week. If they enjoy the experience, we then have potentially great candidates for development and training. On our first go around with this program, we hired three fantastic guys right out of school.”

Ommar Garcia is one of those three students who chose to join on as a team member at Barker & Sons. Currently 19-years-old, Ommar has drive and discipline. He maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout high school. After graduating, he immediately moved into his own place. In addition to taking college courses, he’s currently being put through trade school by Mike and Brenda while also working as an apprentice at the shop.

When asked whether he would have pursued a career in the trades had it not been for Mike’s high school outreach program, Ommar was certain that his post-secondary future would still be up in the air. He’s the perfect example of the enormous talent many PHCE businesses might overlook without a high school connection.

“If I hadn’t heard about the trade school program through Barker & Sons I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. I just wouldn’t have been aware of the opportunity. Sure, I knew that plumbers fix sinks, but now I know how complex the entire system is and the amount of skill it takes to service that system. I definitely wouldn’t have known how much money a plumber can make in today’s industry either.”

One of the ways that Barker & Sons has remained so successful in their recruiting efforts is in their openness to new opportunities for finding and fostering talent. Mike and Brenda both spoke about their desire to enroll in Nexstar’s new online technical training program, NexTech Academy.

NexTech Academy is one of Nexstar’s responses to the current shortage of skilled tradespeople. Members now have the option to enroll new or experienced techs in either the plumbing or HVAC portions of NexTech (the electrical portion will be launched soon).

What separates NexTech Academy from other training programs is its flexibility. Students can train at their own pace and in whatever environment makes them most comfortable.

To accommodate students of all learning styles, the coursework contains reading materials, interactive quizzes, and step-by-step instructional videos. Brenda was particularly excited about the potential of the videos.

“We have many different types of learners here. Some struggle with reading, others have a hard time just staying focused. That’s why I’m so excited about the variety of coursework NexTech offers. It’s so great to see that Nexstar is now offering technical training in addition to all of the other wonderful training classes they provide.”

Growth Through Tragedy

In the years prior to joining Nexstar, Mike and Brenda had been a part of another association, and they enjoyed a good amount of success, but they lacked organization and direction. They lacked a process. During that time, Mike and his wife Brenda did their best to weather the challenges of growth and the enormous stresses of managing a changing business. But it was in early 2015 that they endured a far bigger challenge – a heartbreak that no parent could ever adequately describe.

That January, Mike and Brenda lost their son Austin suddenly. The unexpected loss threw the business into a tailspin. Mike did his best to describe the unimaginably painful months and years that followed.

“I was probably operating at thirty to fifty percent on my best days following Austin’s death. Numb would be the best word to describe my state of mind.”

Until his passing, Austin was an integral part of the business. He had planned to take over the business once the time came, making his loss all the more devastating for the Barkers and the future of the company. In fact, just a year prior, Mike and Brenda decided to make their son the face of Barker & Sons, placing his image on their trucks and advertising materials to promote the Barker brand.

“Austin wanted to run the business someday,” said Mike. “When he passed, we were about halfway through wrapping our trucks with his image front and center. It was indescribably hard to come into work and see that every day. I ended up visiting my pastor for advice. Eventually, he told me to embrace our original plan. Austin wanted to be a part of the company’s future, so why fight that? We decided to hold the course, and to this day, he’s still participating in the success and marketing of the business with each car that drives by one of our trucks. I love that.”

Mike elaborated on the many stages of grief, and how each person deals with a loss in their own unique way. While he was incapacitated, his wife Brenda stepped into his shoes to handle the day-to-day operations of the business. She shared how after years of misdirection, Nexstar entered into the equation, and how the support of fellow Nexstar members helped to right the ship in the years that followed.

“One of our techs had met a former team member at a party and heard that his numbers had skyrocketed while working for a Nexstar company. It wasn’t long until we were asked by our guys if we would consider joining Nexstar. We were more than willing to give it a try. Shortly after, we applied for a membership and were accepted.”

Brenda recounts how having access to owners and leaders of like-minded companies helped to begin the healing process at Barker & Sons.

“We were grieving during that time. We literally had nothing to hold on to. Having access to the great people of Nexstar and their collective experience has definitely helped to steady us, both from an emotional standpoint and a business standpoint.”

Becoming an Employer of Choice

One of the many things that separate Barker & Sons from other companies within the trades industry is their full embrace of the value of higher education. Their company culture blurs the longstanding line between having a college education and a career in the trades. Many of Barkers & Sons’ newest apprentices have 4.0 high school GPAs, and they are all encouraged to pursue four-year degrees.

When asked about the benefits of investing in their employees’ education and continued development, Brenda spoke at length about how making an effort to develop the team ultimately helps the business by making Barker & Sons a destination employer. This mindset is reflected in Nexstar’s own efforts to help members with their recruiting, and to position themselves as employers of choice – or in other words, to become the best businesses to work for in a given area.

“Education is freedom. Education is power. A good portion of our techs have four-year degrees, and we encourage our team to continually improve themselves. The same idea applies when we invest in Nexstar training. Our guys are lining up to go to the next big training event because they love the idea of their employer giving them the chance to better themselves. The fact that we’re now a Nexstar company and offer training has actually been a huge help when it comes to recruiting. People hear that we’re a Nexstar member company and they immediately want to join our team.”

Mike and Brenda have gained much from their Nexstar membership this past year, but they’ve also given back so much more. Their positive, proactive attitude and love for the industry are contagious. Jodie Deegan, their Training Accountability Coach and Southern California neighbor, maintains a close relationship with the Barkers.

“Mike and Brenda are both great people with great hearts. They exemplify what it means to be a Nexstar member and are continually looking for ways to improve the work environment of their exceptional people. They’ve been through a lot throughout the years, but that hasn’t stopped them from looking for ways to improve the state of our industry and its people.”

We believe the successful efforts of owners such as Mike and Brenda Barker will spread, not only to other member companies, but to everyone within our industry. Great and responsible leaders can’t afford to sit back and wait to see what happens. With great leadership comes great responsibility. That responsibility comes in the form of invested time, effort, and resources into the future of an industry we love.