“It's going to take someone 25 talking to somebody that's 16, not somebody that's 60, like me talking to someone that's 16.”
Welcome to another episode of Builder Nuggets, the show where builders and remodelers discover how to build thriving businesses while working less. I'm Duane Johns and together with Dave Young, we share the elements of success that have helped hundreds of contractors like you build better lives. [00:25.7]
Dave: Duane, we hear about workforce challenges a lot. Today, we are sitting down with someone who is actually doing something about it. Our expert serves as full-time Executive Director of The Rebuilding Opportunities in Construction, organization, a nonprofit whose mission is to educate and mentor high school students in Charlotte, North Carolina. His main role is to connect student participants to the construction industry in the form of mentorships, apprenticeships, and permanent job placements.
Duane: He's also one of the three founding partners of Apartment Realty Advisors, a large private multifamily investment sales company. Charlotte housing for seven years, ran Common Wealth Charlotte, highly respected member of the community. And it's my pleasure to welcome Darren Ash to today's show. So, Darren, I've got to say you and I have talked at length about the struggles this industry has seen, is up against. You've been successful in your life and your career. Why in the world are you doing this? It cannot be easy. [01:27.3]
Darren: Thank you Duane. Thank you, Dave. It actually, it's easier than you would think. I mean, good people like yourself, building a bridge to wonderful motivated kids and an underserved community, you know, just kind of have that connectivity and kind of coaching ability to create that type of bridge. So, it it's, it's extremely fun. It's a thriving industry with great people, but it's aging out as you know, to connect young people to that as has just been a joy and its part of my life.
Duane: So, I had the opportunity to spend some time with you several weeks ago in the facility over there, The ROC, ROC, rebuilding opportunities in construction. And it's just a fantastic facility, the program, everything about it. Why don’t you, just give us kind of a quick background on what The ROC is, maybe it’s, its mission and so everybody has a, has an idea of, of what it is that's going on there. [02:27.1]
Darren: Yeah, I'll explain it. Almost the way I'll explain it to a parent of one of our students is that I truly believe in today's new world economy, that just a four-year college degree or university degree doesn't cut it anymore. That the new economy really requires three things. One is academics, so you can't get away from it, our kids have to finish high school and we work with the high schools to help them accomplish that. The second thing required is a skill, a skill in something and something in our case, it is a construction with either advanced carpentry, electrical heating and air or construction management. But the third component in this new economy is work-based learning that we are going to have to adapt to countries like Germany, where we are putting kids on a job site when they're 16, when they're 17, having them ready to act like an adult, be treated like an adult, see what this industry has to offer. So that's the three components of The ROC program, which really the skills training and the work-based learning are what we combined. [03:51.0]
Dave: What are the opinions of the kids when they're coming to you about the construction industry? Like you see them early on, when you ask them, what do they think or what are they excited about? What sort of answers do you get? Cause that's going to be very telling as to what the problem is,
Darren: Right. Again, we are, it's like turning the Titanic right now. We are fighting a real stigma. The C – word, construction word in high school is a bad word. No kid really wants that. They want either be an architect and engineer, the next fortnite gamer, a coder or something in technology. So, we come in, we, this is our third year doing it. And we come into the classroom starting their sophomore year. And now it's a lot easier because we have success stories. We have kids telling the story that this is a new industry. You're going to have to work hard. You're going to have to get dirty. But the things that you can do from, you know, honing your craft and carpentry to electrical wiring, heating and air, or even managing a commercial crew and then it keeps going on to civil engineering. [05:06.0]
It's a compelling story to the kid and his parent, because you can step off of our pathway multiple times and pivot versus if you had just gone the way that everyone pushes you, which is college debt and a four-year university, you're kind of stuck to live with that. Ours gives you a lot of freedom and a lot of skill sets and certificates along the way. So, a long answer to your question is, it's really starting to kick in with the success of our prior students. It was really hard two and a half, three years ago, much easier today. [05:50.8]
Dave: Was one of the hard parts finding open-minded builders that could except these young people into their business and take that we'll call it, take that risk or take that chance? Was that an obstacle for you in the beginning?
Darren: Absolutely because, State of North Carolina, our country in general, North Carolina, particularly have these really tough labor laws for construction. They make it very hard to bring in an apprentice that is under age 18. So, the human resource departments have a lot of these companies just said, no right off the bat, that we're not allowed to have an under 18 apprentice. But we kept showing them that we provide an exception to the labor law because we are a state registered student learner program. And because we are, our kids are in class while they're working, they can do the same job as an 18-year-old rogue. Very tough at first, again like the recruiting of the kids themselves. [06:54.8]
Dave: I talked to lots of builders, remodelers’ trades people in the industry and one of the things we talk about is how, you know, we were given the opportunity, whether it was work on gas engines or to have some sort of trade class wood shop, those things have disappeared from the high schools and we'll get into some of the reasons, you know, around the societal views around it. But tell me a little bit more about the labor laws things. And have you seen any, any movement on that? What, what generally seems to be the biggest barrier then to their reasoning for that? [07:28.7]
Darren: Yeah, that's a great question. Again, they define certain occupations as either detrimental or hazardous and pretty much everything you do on a construction site falls into that. And again, I think we're just a litigious, is that the right word? Society?
Duane: Yeah, I had a feeling you were going to slip that into the conversation.
Darren: Yeah, yeah. It means that we are just were ready to sue in a moment's notice and these companies are worried about it. And so, the, you know, the public officials try to legislate it, but they've gotten around it in other countries. And I think we're seeing what a big disservice it is to these young people to not let them, you know, get on a job site, to prove themselves. So other than that, just the fear of being sued, they won't let you, they won't let a kid under 18 be more than eight feet off the ground. You can't operate power tools. You can't, just goes down the line and not, and our kids are in this lab every day, operating power tools. It's funny, they won't let you take that out to the workplace. [08:41.7]
Duane: Right. So, The ROC is providing somewhat of a controlled environment for that. The concern being that, that can't be quite a controlled environment out somewhere on the job site.
Dave: Darren, you mentioned that this had some traction early on with the commercial contractors and then with, with some of the production home builders, what sort of response or challenges or obstacles are you seeing with the custom home builders? Our audiences mainly custom contractors, so remodelers and custom home builders who may be wondering how to get involved. What sort of engagement levels do you have with the smaller custom home builder? [09:15.9]
Darren: I think it’s; I think it's going to be a big part of our future. I think the custom home builder remodeler really gets into the craft side of the business, which our kids love to see. The reason I went with the larger track builders, the national people, the national commercial people was, I just needed to test the HR departments for the bigger groups, Lennar Homes. I had to go all the way through all of their Dallas HR people multiple times. So, it was more kind of strategic on my end that if I can get through these HR people, then I know it'll work as I get more boutique and specialized.
Dave: Great testing ground for you. And also, it's, you know, something that Duane and I have trained on a lot is it sounds like some strategic scalability on your part as well. [10:06.7]
Darren: You're right. I, I had to know before I took this too far, I mentioned to you, I'm a, full-time volunteer, not paid that I could get somewhere with this. So, our first cohort, we only had 20 kids to place. It was actually a tougher group of kids because we didn't have the momentum. When I say tougher, lower GPA's, little more behavioral issues. So, I had kind of a tougher first cohort. I had skeptical large employers and I have to save my kids 20 out of 20, knocked it out of the park with them. They showed up every day on time. They were, they were great, great workers, no accidents, anything. [10:55.8]
Dave: One of the things we hear sometimes is starting these programs, we had, we have another guest that we spoke to is trying to do something similar in a similar way. And in their first cohort, they had issues getting them across the finish line. So, you must be doing something right over there at The ROC to to get that sort of buy-in and adoption. And I think that's something that probably other builders would love to hear. What are some of the things that create some stickiness in these programs that help motivate these kids to stay engaged, but also how do you train the corporate leaders to be tolerant and enthusiastic and engaged with the kids and supportive of the of the kids in the program as well? You must, you've got quite a juggling act on your hands, but it sounds like you're pulling it off. [11:40.8]
Darren: Well, we control what we can control with money first. We spend money with Lyft and Uber transporting the kids to in front of the job site every morning and afternoon. And if the job site changes, then we pay to get them there. So that comes from private donations, we did not ask the home builder or the commercial group to help fund that. The kids have their OSHA 10, they have all the PPE, they'd been in the labs for almost four months. And so, they've had a lot of work with power tools and I think it's we see a kid that is so, so amazed that adults are paying attention to them, that the best of them come out. We just kind of take a little bit of the guesswork out of it with, with our support system. But I think your industry, it's been amazing that on any job site, there are two or three people that just love on these kids, push on these kids and develop a pretty close bond. The kids come back that fall their senior year and they're all jacked up, puffed up. And you know, we actually have to jerk them down a notch. [12:58.1]
Darren: They're actually a little cocky, but it's just, it's, it's just a magical, that's why I, I keep talking about the skills training is worthless without this work-based learning phase. And that's probably one of the best things, I guess when we were putting this program together is that we said, if we leave, work-based learning to the teachers, if we leave it to Central Piedmont Community College or Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, or it will fail. It has to be an independent that wakes up saying, I want to deliver a product to this employer and I'm going to put my name on it. I'm going to oversee it. I mean, it's not all perfect. We had we had a group that where the kid was just, just looking at his phone way too much. He was like looking at TikTok and the assistant supervisor had my cell number called, you know, I jerked about the kid. He kept doing it. But one of my staff members went to his house, talked to his mother, blessed out the kid. The mother took the phone away, he was on it, you know, we resolved it because we had one shot at impressing that employer and that kid was screwing it up. [14:18.3]
Dave: Can you send that person over to my house to get my phones away from my daughter? There's a lot of TikTok going on in my house.
Darren: It's unbelievable. This is, I mean, when we get these kids out into the labs, their phones naturally go back into their pocket, but it's just a huge cultural issue right now.
Duane: Darren, one of the big elements of success that we talk about a lot during this podcast and especially with other business owners that Dave and I talk with and it's it's culture, you know, I can say firsthand from visiting with you and seeing the team over there, you've, you've nailed the culture thing. You know what I mean? There's a respect that goes on there and there's almost a feeling of nobility to a certain degree of what's being done what they're doing, but also it's tough love. I see the light the way, you know, you and other folks are conducting yourselves over there and kudos to you for the culture. I think that you're building. [15:09.6]
Darren: Thank you. I've got an amazing staff there. We're all different. And we all try to be true to our personality over here, so, the kids always know what they're getting. I am the pushover, but I've got a couple of people that will really come down hard on them. The kids get a lot of different stuff.
Duane: Of all the industries, that's very necessary in this industry because when you get onto the job site, you're going to have to have a little bit of tough skin. It's not easy. So, it's some very good fundamentals, I think you're building over there. [15:41.6]
A quick reminder that the best way to get the most out of this podcast is to engage with the Builder Nuggets community, visit our website at BuilderNuggets.com and follow along on Facebook and Instagram. [15:55.2]
Duane: It's amazing how many things are happening in communities. You know, one-off things, maybe it could be a masonry contest, skills contest, building playhouses, and they're just not heard about. There's no platform for these things to go on. So, I hope that folks that are out there listening, and I know you're likely attached to something like this in your own community. I think sharing those things and promoting what is going on in your communities. You'd be surprised by what's going on and how much they would appreciate any help they can get. Why has our industry struggled so much, especially in the last 15 years or so to attract people? [16:38.8]
Darren: Well, what was it? 2009? I want to be sure I have the number right. 400,000 people were laid off in the construction industry. There's a lot of stigma attached to that and I think the industry is having to dig itself back out of a hole that, yeah, we're, we're good to you if times are really good. ut if times aren't good, you know, you're dispensable. Again, for a kid, for a teenager, they are not growing up with a desire to build something the way we were. I'm 60 so, I mean, that has just never been nurtured. You want to buy something; you just don't want to build anything; you may want to program something. [17:31.0]
35 years ago, they took the trades out of the school, not because the trades weren't valued, but it was an expensive model. One teacher per 15 kids and a lab manager per 45 kids and they realized they could put an instructor up there in front of 32 kids and lecture to them and it was no tools, no equipment, no space and they justified that with the university for all. So, these kids from an early age, you could be in deep poverty of whatever they are brainwashed into a four-year university pathway. [18:13.9]
Duane: My son is a junior in high school and is part of a robotics program. And I kind of got involved helping a little bit in the last several years. And I've been just blown away by the passion in these kids to be a part of that program. And it reminds me almost of a, you know, maybe a modern-day version of, of what woodshop class was because these kids are given a task early in the year and they have to plan it out. They have designers, they have people that run the machines, they're hands on. And to see these kids work with their hands and build stuff, they truly do love it once they're exposed to it and shown how to do it and give the bandwidth. And I think that's, that's something that we have to figure out as an industry that we get back. Cause it is a huge issue. The name, the title of this episode was, ‘Building a workforce’ and you talk to any builder or a model or out there and just about the biggest struggle that they have, is finding qualified people, finding qualified carpenters, tradesmen, project managers. We have, you know, very few people entering this workforce or looking at this as a viable career path. We've got to collaborate, come together, figure out how to make this thing. You know how to make it fun and exciting. [19:25.0]
Dave: Well, it gets, sounds like what you've been doing. Darren is creating a little bit of a, a movement. You've been putting some strategy clearly behind it. You’ve been thinking about it a lot. Duane, you mentioned the other little things that are going on in different communities where, whether it's contests or providing some small thing to get going, but really what this needs is some momentum, because it's almost the perfect environment for kids that this age or young people that want to get involved in an industry that is growing hugely in heaps from an earnings potential opportunity, from creation of amazing places to work. The opportunity for these kids is huge because there is such a need it's basic supply and demand. So, what's your advice to the custom builder who wants to be part of this movement who wants to step up and say, Hey, I recognize that I need to do my part in helping to solve this. I realized that there's some risks. What are the first steps for helping somebody to get involved for the builder that's out there saying, Hey, do you know what I could do this? I want to do my part. [20:38.5]
Darren: You know, we delivered this facility without industry involvement. We raised almost $3 million to bring it to life and we ran through a couple of cohorts to test the model. Now we're kind of telling industry, you know, here's how you can kind of start adopting this. And the first thing is I call it Each One, Take One. Take one apprentice. I don't want to have a track home builder with five of my apprentices. I want them to have one. I want to have a boutique firm with one, and I want to bring all of those companies together, you know, to form an advisory board that, you know, we say, what, what did we do, right? What did we do wrong? So, it they're going to pay for, we're going to have to just say, I may not get that kid full time, but I participated. We're going to be three times bigger than this in a few years. [21:39.4]
The second is once you take one, we wanted, you know, their senior year for that, somebody from that, from that employer to kind of visit our student once a month, once every six weeks stay involved in their life. And then we've got a kind of a small scholarship plan. It cost us about 12,000 a year to pull this off, but we can get about 8,000 in, from the Department of Commerce and other dedicated sources. So, we're looking for participation anywhere from 500 to a thousand to that full $4,000 gap. So, we're not trying to put too much financial pressure on the home builder. So, we kind of made it where there's a lot of leverage, but it is the movement of hiring under 18 and putting that kid in a place where they're not just sweeping up the site, that's probably what we'd hoped would be a third of the time, but we'd love to see them with their power tools and outwork and a third of the time, and then learning a new craft a third of the time. That's where you're going to really hook that kid long-term into the industry. [22:56.8]
Duane: So, with the challenges you mentioned before of, you know, whether it's state laws and labor laws, I mean, what, what are some specific suggestions around that? Or how can it, don't want to say you're trying to get around that, but I mean, what can be done to look at it, to keep people in compliance, but to still start promoting the, the apprenticeship concept. [23:16.8]
Darren: So, we laid out some information on our website, under the industry section roccharlotte.org, click on industry. And we kind of hit the labor law section head on and how we are an exception to that. So, I think we've tried to cover that base. There's a lot of different types of coverages around these kids, although the employer has to provide the worker's comp, but again, we're, we're spending a fair amount of money to get the kid where they need to go. So, there's a fair amount of investment coming from the charitable sector, just in getting the kid there, getting the kid well-equipped, et cetera. [24:01.7]
Duane: Well for the builders and remodelers out there, you know, talking about investing in your future, trying to build a workforce, you're going to have to, we're all going to have to step to the plate and start thinking like this sooner, rather than later.
Dave: Darren, you serve as matchmakers, you're trying to find the right young people for the program. Then you're trying to find the right builder employer for the program and the right environment for that placement. That's gotta be a challenge finding the right builder and that's something that we can probably help you with through this show. Walk us through how you determine who's a good fit for one of these placements. How do you identify them? Or how does somebody, maybe somebody who's listening to this show identify themselves to you. [24:42.6]
Darren: We love when someone reaches out, if someone reaches out to me, I love for them to come by just like Duane did and see the kids in action. Let me introduce some kids to them and just build a relationship. Starting in March, I kinda know, I'll know for about 40 kids, do they want to go the electrical route? Do they want to go this route? And I will kind of match that kid's personality to the company's personality. So, in a way I don't leave it to chance. I like to employ or know exactly what they're getting all the way from the kids, household, all the good, the bad, the ugly, and also the same I portray back to the kid. And I think it works better that way than a job fair, where you're just meeting a kid for 20 minutes and making a decision. I don't believe in that at this stage. I believe that I need to make the match. And again, I've got a, I've got a good staff helping me with that. [25:50.1]
Dave: Our Builder Nuggets audiences are all across North America. This is clearly central to the Charlotte area. Do you collaborate with other groups like yours? Have you met other groups like yours, that we can help you to grow this message or further the program and other areas like how, how would somebody in Nebraska get involved in something like this? [26:10.7]
Darren: Wow. You know, that's, my dream is to come up for air and go visit other places. I know we're unique in that we have integrated these classes right into the homeschool of four different high schools. So, they actually are transported here for half of their day, they can go back and play football or be in the band. We're also unique in that our kids get college credit for the classes they take here. And then third, I think we're with this under 18 apprenticeship, that's, that's where people in different parts of the US really have to pick somebody that's teaching. Us teaching is not unique, the integration directly into the high poverty high school is unique and the work-based learning is unique and not letting some bureaucratic school system or whatever handle the work-based learning. [27:08.2]
So sometimes you'll get people that are big in their own markets. And they'll say, you know, I want to affect change, you know, Oakwood homes in Denver, Colorado with some their crafts academy, right there said, yeah, we're going to, we're going to go partner and try to do Brasfield and Gorrie commercial in Birmingham, the same concept that they found people that taught real well. But then they did the work-based learning phase, again which is kind of the secret sauce. [27:40.6]
Dave: One of the, premises of this show is that we're going to challenge things in the industry. And there's times like this, where we can lay out the challenge that there are members of our community out there that feel like this is something that they want to take on, be a part of. It sounds like you're open to them, reaching out to you to find out some of the things that have worked for you and maybe what they could do to replicate in that market. Fair enough. [28:03.3]
Darren: Absolutely. I'd love that.
Duane: Darren. One last thing I wanted to touch on before we wrap up is just, you’re making this thing cool and making it cool for children to want, I guess, want to be for their parents to think that it's a viable path. Probably a bit of a philosophical question that you and I talked about it it's those dinner table discussions, but I mean, what's, what's the magnet. What do you think is the thing that is going to start to turn to where people start to really look at this and say, man, that's a viable path. It doesn't just have to be the four-year degree and debt as you said before, you know that there's a viable path and construction, what kind of things do you think have to happen? [28:39.0]
Darren: Well, one thing we're, we're seeing is somebody that, you know, is the same race or culture coming back and talking to these kids and they were in their new truck and they're throwing down their huge paycheck and letting them see it right there and say, you know what, deal with that. And I'm outdoors and you know, I've got a, I've got a, a skill set that no one else has. It's going to take someone 25 talking to somebody that's 16, not somebody that's 60, like me talking to someone that's 16. So, but we're kind of gradually getting there. I do have 18, 19-year-olds that are on great pathways right now, back talking to my younger kids. And that's where, that's where they really listen. [29:23.8]
Dave: The success stories become your voice, that's what Dwayne and I were talking about that earlier today on a completely different topic. But that's really what you, you know, your best salesforce are your success stories. They're the ones going out saying, look, you thought I was a unicorn. I am a unicorn but unicorns exist. We are out there and if I can do it, you can do it and the encouragement to do that. One of the things that's resonating with me was something you said right near the beginning, when we asked you what your goal was and you said, well, one of the things that we need to do for the young student is make this a new industry for them. And I've been thinking about that as we've been talking to you, but if we're successful at doing that, they make a new industry for us. And it's an industry that we've been craving. And it's the opportunity for us to create the type of future that we want was motivated kids who just don't know that this opportunity exists. So I just think that's, it's really powerful what you're doing, because I could see this, this programs like this, the young people getting skilled, getting skilled, getting them involved, being passionate about this will, will help us to create or bring the industry back to a place where we want it to be. There's a lot of fear around these things. So, it's pretty cool. [30:41.4]
Duane: Definitely is. Darren, thank you for doing what you're doing. You're leading the industry no doubt about it. You and your whole team are making a big change here in Charlotte, and it will move on to other places, I can see that. Anything else you wanted to add here at the hand or anything you wanted to let the listeners know? [30:57.6]
Darren: I just, I'm so appreciative of you guys. And you know, it's, it's going to take forward thinking firms like yours, to kind of move the needle on this. And, and I see it. I can see I'm starting to see it. I'm starting to meet people like you guys. And then that's, what's encouraging is that you want to pass your craft along. You want this industry to thrive. And I was worried whether that would be the case a few years ago, and now I'm just very delighted. I'm very delighted, people are taking an interest and asking me to be part of conversations like this. [31:35.8]
Duane: Well, you, I know you've got some rock stars in the making there, and it sounds like you've probably got one or two students there that may start to be living that dream. So, we'd love to have them at some point, maybe on, as a guest to tell their story, what they've learned going through it, how they feel about being into this industry and making a career of it. So, keep that in mind and would love to have, have one of them back on the show.
Darren: Awesome. Thank you. [32:00.5]
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