J.H. Kelly pushed this age-old concept to a higher level early last year, when the Longview, WA-based mechanical contractor developed its School of Construction. Since then, the $1 million investment has grown into a training machine.

“There’s no substitute for hands-on learning,” says Dan Evans, president, CEO and majority owner of J.H. Kelly. “You need to have confidence in your employees. The more tools you put in their hands, the better off you are.”

In December 1996, senior management at the 75–year–old company decided to dedicate more to training. There were a number of circumstances that led to the development of the School of Construction, according to Dave Johanson, head of the school and vice president of client and corporate services.

“Over the past few years we’ve had many new employees,” says Johanson, who has more than 20 years of experience in construction and process manufacturing. “We weren’t keeping pace with our growth. Employees were asking for this direction.”

When Johanson joined the company in 1986, it was much smaller — a $12 million company. J.H. Kelly reported $130 million in construction revenues in 1997, ranking number 15 in our latest Pipe Trades Giants.

“In 1986 senior managers could touch everything,” says Johanson, explaining the one-time smaller size of the company. “That time had long passed, and we needed to beef up our project controls. We wanted to lead and not follow. In the end, that’s why we made the leap.”

Starting From Scratch:

When the decision to move forward with a major training program became reality, the company had to assess where it was at.

“In the 1980s there was a big push for safety,” says Evans, whose company has offices in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, North Dakota and Oklahoma. “We implemented programs that were going to stay for a long time.

“In the 1990s there’s a push for training programs. The industry is more complex, and as contractors we are providing more than we ever use to. Like with safety in the 1980s, we’d be missing out on an opportunity if we were not implementing programs.”

Evans knew that the School of Construction would boost part of his company’s mission: to create “opportunities for greater personal satisfaction and financial growth for its employees.”

“We’re driven by what our employees deem important,” explains Evans, whose company is the largest privately owned business in the area.

“All training was external,” says Johanson, who recommended himself to head up the school. “We sent employees away to seminars and two week courses. A lot of the stuff was generic, and we weren’t bringing it back to our business.”

Johanson says the company viewed training as something they had to do, instead of something they wanted to do. Their change of attitude resulted in the hiring of a human resources person. But the company’s growth spurt pushed down the priority of a training program.

“We kept listening to our employees — getting feedback,” says Johanson. “Initially we had a hit list of six to seven topics.”

And J.H. Kelly went to it — the employee driven School of Construction was launched with an estimating class in January 1997. Since its inception the School of Construction has run through its original class list. J.H. Kelly now has more than 15 classes.

During February, March and April 1997, J.H. Kelly averaged about two classes a week. Currently the school is scheduling three classes per month, and plans to stay on route until a summer break during June, July and August.

Parts In Motion:

“When we started we hit the classes very, very hard on the priority list,” Johanson says. “We wanted it to be like a regular school.”

Indeed it is.

In its first year the School of Construction trained 350 students, which in actuality was about 120 different people. Employees are allowed to take different classes, since it is after work hours and on their own time. J.H. Kelly employs an average of 1,000 people, but only about 400 would benefit from the School of Construction.

“Training can be difficult at best with people working 40 hours a week and taking care of responsibilities of life,” says Clancy Kelly, who is a vice president and division manager. “Our people take time on their own to do training. It’s a mark of dedication.”

Kelly, one of more than two dozen teachers, taught a project setup class in February 1996. The class showed students how to put together a job and track it.

Kelly says it made a lot of sense for members of management, like himself, to get involved early on to set the tempo and tone.

“Experience carries a lot of weight,” says Kelly, who has also attended classes as a student. “It’s a pretty forgiving group — we’re not educators. We all know our place.”

All except one of the teachers are J.H. Kelly employees. Each class averages two teachers and 15 students.

Kelly says when he taught he focused mainly on the company’s corporate control manual.

“Teaching gets people even more familiar with the subject matter,” Kelly says. “It gives thoughts for streamlining and revisions within the company. When you take the time to go through the information, you learn as much as everyone else does.”

Johanson agrees: “We’ve learned a lot about how J.H. Kelly is run. We’ve had to make many decisions on how we really want to run the business. These classes help the management group make decisions on how the company runs and is managed.”

J.H. Kelly showcases its team play through the School of Construction.

“It’s culturally inbred in our company to do things in teams,” Johanson says. “No one person can be well versed to entirely teach a class by himself. We like to have representatives from all groups teach.”

Kelly says the School of Construction shows the company is full of team players.

“If we didn’t have solid employees, the School of Construction wouldn’t work,” Kelly says. “The open dialogue and participation gets the knowledge out. The more knowledge that gets out, the more the word gets out, the more people attend classes.”

Behind The Desk:

Junior Project Manager Rich Beck attended several classes during 1997 on estimating and project management.

“It’s nice to learn J.H. Kelly systems,” says Beck, who has been with the company since 1993. “It helps to get things standardized company-wide. It’s a helpful way to learn.” Beck says the training programs are putting him in a position to move up through the company, where he eventually wants to manage large projects.

“There’s a lot of information with people who have been with this company a long time,” he says. “It’s great to hear their experiences.”

Kelly says one of the best aspects of the classes is finally being able to put a face with a name. The School of Construction brings people together from different company offices.

“Some people you only know as a voice over the phone,” Kelly says. “You treat people more respectfully when you know that they’re not just a voice.” Johanson enjoys the class interaction as well.

“We like to get a mix in there of senior folks and people that are in accounts payable/receivable and billing,” says Johanson. “In many cases people have never put a name with a face. There’s nothing better than finally putting a name with a face.”

Even though Evans is the company president, he has attended the class as a student.

“We’re getting people together and exchanging ideas and experiences at these classes,” says Evans. “I get to hear from the younger guys in the company. It helps us work from the bottom up. It’s a unique mixture of experience.”

But Evans admits there’s no magic to the School of Construction, just that “J.H. Kelly has been blessed with good employees.”

Navigating The Map:

Now that the School of Construction is up and successfully running the next question is: What to do next?

Evans says the School of Construction is considering affiliating with nearby Lower Columbia Community College.

Johanson says the company is looking at implementing more subjects into the training program, including data process training, computer skills enhancement and defensive driving courses. He also wants to streamline the courses and fit more material into one session.

“Cooperation has mushroomed this past year,” says Johanson. “We want to have people who are experts in what they’re doing.”

He says after the summer break, the School of Construction will be starting repeat courses, and making improvements.

“We’re already seeing improvements,” Johanson says. “By adding value to employees of J.H. Kelly, we’re adding value for our customers.”