Virginia Chapter Engages Local Students
The American Fire Sprinkler Association’s (AFSA) Virginia Chapter board was meeting for the first time this year in February, and we were trying to come up with something unique we could do to help our members and possibly increase membership in the state chapter. We have an amazing, intelligent, and creative board, and the ideas were coming fast and furious from all board members. “Should we have a new membership social at Topgolf; have our executive director travel around Virginia soliciting new members; focus on NexGen, the scholarship contest, more training with NICET points, or community projects?” And then, one Board member said, “Let’s help our members attract high-quality employees through local high schools’ Career and Technical Education programs (CTE), vocational schools, community colleges, and adult education programs.” We looked at each other and simultaneously thought. “Eureka! He may be onto something.”
That board member was Jeff Lewis, vice president of inspections, VSC Fire & Security, Inc. in Ashland, Virginia. He is the chair of the Virginia Chapter’s Education & Apprenticeship Committee. Over the years, he has been involved with SkillsUSA competitions that showcase the most talented high school CTE students in the nation and has spoken at many high schools throughout his career. So, where did that lead?
He organized a fire protection industry career fair at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel located in Richmond and invited the Henrico, City of Richmond, Hanover, Chesterfield, and Powhatan school districts. It was advertised to all of the schools that they could come and learn about the fire sprinkler, fire alarm, fire extinguisher, and detection industries. This event occurred in the Monet Ballroom at the Four Points hotel from 4:00-7:00 pm on a Wednesday. The career fair featured live demonstrations of AutoCAD and BIM 3D modeling, virtual reality from a vendor showing a fire sprinkler system in operation, a fire extinguisher computer simulator, operable fire alarm displays, and industry experts talking about the careers available in the industry. We were targeting fire sprinkler installers, fire alarm technicians, CAD operators, welders, and ITM (inspection, testing, and maintenance) inspector trainees. There was fantastic support from contractor members, vendors, Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs), and chapter board members. The attendees, members, and vendors gave the event an A+ with all of the hands-on experiences available to all. However, we only had about 22 attendees and seven potential job candidates. Our contractor member did interview the seven candidates, made four job offers, and hired two. We also made direct contact with the Henrico County and City of Richmond CTE directors. What did we learn from this experience?
Board members discussed the career fair’s disappointing attendance and came up with several improvements for the following year. We are going to schedule this career fair during the school day and have the school districts bus their CTE students to the event every hour and a half so the members and vendors will have contact with over 160 CTE students. We will meet personally with the CTE directors of each school district and have them commit 40-50 students each. Lastly, we will start advertising the event much earlier. If we are able to attract at least 160 student attendees and end up getting the same percentage hired, our members could have up to 45 high school students in their employment starting the summer of 2023. Now that would be real progress!
What exciting things have happened since the career fair? Jeff Lewis and I have met with Henrico County Workforce and Career Development Director Mac Beaton and Henrico County Workforce and Career Development Specialist Beverly Cocke to discuss future endeavors with their CTE program. They are two very special educators who think “outside the box” and fight extremely hard for job training and careers for their CTE students in the private sector after graduation. Their motto is, “In Henrico County schools, we believe every student will graduate enrolled, enlisted or employed.” They prepare their students for future employers by getting them industry-certified or a state license in various programs (computer, cosmetology, EMS, CAN, OSHA 10), teaching them the importance of showing up to work on time and being prepared to work and represent their employers in a professional manner. Some of their events during the year include a Life Ready Expo, Career Rodeo, and a National Signing Day with their parents and new employers.
Henrico County’s Life Ready Expo introduces parents and students directly to future employers to speak about career paths within their respective companies. Pre-COVID-19, this expo had 150 employers with over 4,000 in total attendance from grades 7 through 12. The Career Rodeo lets students showcase their skills in front of businesses and community partners. Employers can watch the students work on projects in their career field, and request resumes based on the student’s number. The Career Rodeo had 426 students in attendance, 100 business partners, and over 300 resumes handed out to future employers before COVID-19. Their CTE program caps off in May with a National Signing Day event where students are celebrated and honored for starting their careers early. Before COVID-19, Henrico County had over 110 students signing with over 60 businesses from Virginia and other states. Mac has been interviewed about the success of their program by many national news outlets such as NBC’s Today Show, Fox News, and CNN Headline News. He has also had various radio, print, and internet-based media interviews regarding the signing day event. Is there more? Of course!
Mac Beaton and Beverly Cocke decided to really push the Henrico County school system to let them and their CTE students get involved in a huge project at the Regency Square Mall in Richmond, building out tenant space for its Adult Center Education program. This project involves over 45,000 ft2 of the mall’s lower level. They are partnering with local construction subcontractors to provide the drywall, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and painting for the entire project. The Henrico County school system pays for all workman’s compensation on this type of project for their CTE students.
The four of us met at the mall and surveyed the project with them. Their students, working as interns, are onsite helping the subcontractors in the various trades complete the work. We asked if they had the fire sprinkler and fire alarm work covered for this project, as we figured this was a great way to mentor with a hands-on approach to train future employees. We are excited to announce that the Virginia Chapter has agreed to partner with the Henrico County schools on this project and perform the work as a community service project. Chapter members and vendors have stepped up, and we are looking forward to this private-public partnership. We have been told by Henrico County that there are other projects like this coming up in the future. What a way to train employees prior to putting them on the payroll!
Henrico County schools also sent a crew to my office in Dumfries to record a podcast regarding careers in the fire protection industry. The interview was about the various career paths that are offered by most fire sprinkler companies. We spoke about design, field installation, ITM/service, shop fabrication, estimating, project management, accounting, and ownership possibilities. They were informed that many fire sprinkler contractor owners are not college graduates and have worked their way up through the industry with hard work, intelligence, and tenacity. The interview lasted about an hour, and the podcast team was very professional. They post the podcasts on YouTube to share with students, teachers, employers, and others. Listen at: anchor.fm/henrico-cte/episodes/Henrico-CTE-Now–Season-4–
I have been so encouraged by the progress being made with Henrico County schools that I have signed an agreement with the Prince William County school system near my company Cavalier Fire Protection, LLC to provide internships for field, ITM, and design positions within the organization. I selected the two closest high schools in blue-collar neighborhoods near my office to recruit prospective trainees. I expect to have two interns this fall when school is back in session, one in the design department and the other working in the shop.
Pick up the phone or, better yet, go in person and meet/connect with your local high school CTE director, VoTech school, adult learning school, community college, or military base to find those quality workers looking for a long-term career that pays above average, has great benefits, and offers many fantastic and challenging career paths. We all have to get involved and promote the varied career paths available in our companies. Is it easy? No. Is it time-consuming? Yes. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bob Beckwith is chair of AFSA’s Virginia Chapter and an owner of Cavalier Fire Protection, LLC in Dumfries, Virginia. He has a B.S. in business administration and is a NICET Level III in ITM. Contact Beckwith via email at BBeckwith@cavalierfire.com.