Offering a career path can help contractors recruit employees.

John Courson, president and CEO of the Home Builders Institute. Photo credit: Home Builders Institute

Plumbing & Mechanical recently interviewedJohn Courson, who became president and CEO of theHome Builders Institutein January. HBI is a 40-year-old nonprofit organization whose mission is workforce training in construction skills. With 280 employees and 120 training sites in 43 states, HBI receives 80% of its $30 million annual budget through contracts with the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Justice.

Before joining HBI, Courson was president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

PM:How involved is HBI in the plumbing and heating trades?

JC:We train a diverse population. Probably the most substantial training today is with youth who come through different programs. Job Corps has 150 sites and we train Job Corps students at 73 sites. We have a textbook on plumbing and one for HVAC. These textbooks are used in Job Corps and also in high school and two-year college programs. In addition, we have labs set up with plumbing facilities where kids can figure out how to work with the different tools and materials.

We regularly take students out to jobsites where they can do the plumbing work. And when these students leave us, they leave with a pre-apprenticeship training certificate.

PM:How does HBI involve trade groups such as the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association (PHCC)?

JC:We work with PHCC in our plumbing textbook series. To form the basis of our educational materials, we bring in panels of subject matter experts to Washington. We go through this very formalized process so that it is clean and defensible, and we know we’re putting graduates out there who know their material.

PM:Can you describe HBI programs that target at-risk youths, ex-offenders and veterans?

JC:Along with Job Corps, we work with kids who are at risk and, through the courts, are in work-release programs and foster homes. We bring them into non-Job Corps sites around the country, which are funded with workforce investment funds. Another area where we are moving aggressively is to teach plumbing and other skills to veterans. Many veterans will be ideally suited for construction. They’ve worked as a team, they’ve worked outdoors and with their hands.

The other population we deal with is through training centers in correctional facilities. We have a grant through the Department of Justice so the folks coming out of our program will be placed in jobs. Overall, our placement rate last year for people coming out of our programs was 80%.

PM:What is the reaction of employers hiring people who are ex-offenders or at-risk?

JC:First, a lot of our placements are through our local home-builder associations, and they are well aware of our programs. They know the kids coming out of our programs are not just able to install piping, plumbing and HVAC. They know we teach them the soft skills like working on their GED and that we provide a mentor for them. They know these kids go through more than just the hard skills training.

Second, employers have some comfort that we follow these students when they come out. We have staff in six different regions that follow each of these students for the first year of their employment. If something goes wrong, they can call us and we can come in to mentor these kids. We just don’t throw them in and let the contractor deal with them.

PM:What can the construction industry do to attract young people seeking a career?

JC:HBI can take these students only so far, whether veterans or displaced workers from another industry. Contractors have to realize they can't just take these kinds of students, throw them on the job and forget about them.They’ve got a responsibility to help these students move on. Get them through the start of an apprenticeship and show them how to become a journeyman.

For those who have promise out there on the job, give them a career path. They can become a supervisor and then become a foreman. Some will be happy doing plumbing for the rest of their life; they just like it. But a substantial number want to see an overall career path, and we at HBI can’t give them that.

PM:Is interest in green buildings still growing?

JC:It is, particularly among young people. Our training is moving into areas such as weatherization and solar. We’re really on the cutting edge of green technology. We’re coming out with a green textbook in 2013 that will be a blend of trades from carpentry to plumbing to HVAC to solar to facilities maintenance because we’ll take a whole-house approach.

PM:Why do trade contractors have such trouble finding “superstar” talent with unemployment so high and demand for their services so limited?

JC:The problem with a lot of the hiring today is that jobs are available but people don’t have the skills. A plumbing contractor wants to hire an apprentice but where does he go? A lot of people are looking for jobs, but they don’t know the hot water tap from the cold water tap. So, they have to look at programs like ours that are providing these hard skills.

Through our textbooks series, we focus on the secondary and post-secondary levels as well. We developed our Residential Construction Academy Series so we can get into the mainstream school market across the country. We also have 150 student chapters with 4,000 students that are affiliated with the National Association of Home Builders and with us. We manage the program, which is in high schools, two-year colleges and four-year universities. In most cases, these chapters do hands-on work in the labs and in their communities while learning about construction management from HBI-managed events and training materials.

We know not every kid will go to a four-year school. We try to show them what home building is. Many enter through the management side through our Residential Construction Superintendent program. HBI really plays a paramount role with the next generation coming into the industry.

PM:What role should manufacturers play in training people who install their products?

JC:Manufacturers need to get engaged in an early stage with us. We need materials in our plumbing lab. We need toilets, pipes and other plumbing products given to us in kind. Otherwise, we have to suck dollars out of the program that we could use elsewhere. So, manufacturers could help that way. One of the things I’ll be doing is reaching out to manufacturers to get them to support our program. We’re not going to be able to continue these programs if our federal funding gets cut. So, I have to go out to manufacturers and explain our value proposition.

PM:What kind of online training does HBI offer?

JC:Our Residential Construction Superintendent series is online. We’re putting our other instructional materials online as we speak. With advances in technology with elearning, we’re seeing 3-D modeling with imagery that resonates with somebody who’s used to having an iPhone. That also will be a big component for the veterans who come back and are technically savvy. They may not take a technical class in the classroom because they’re beyond that, but they may take it online. So, we’ll have a blended learning environment, but we do believe it’s very important to have a hands-on component.   

PM:Do you find it difficult to find the instructors and mentors you need for your orwganization to function properly?

JC:No, actually the challenge we have is being able to find funding to open more sites. Many of our workforce training and employment facilities, which are non-Job Corps sites, are funded primarily through workforce investment funds in local communities. Our challenge is to expand that program to as many different locations as we can. We have the infrastructure, regional managers and placement coordinators to do that. We hire people around the country and many of our instructors are former tradesmen.

Our instructors may be retired plumbers and know their skills, but they may not be sure how to manage a classroom and students. So, we have a partnership with Ohio State University. They take a course through Ohio State showing them teaching skills and they get certified as instructors. Visit and you’ll see that we’re hiring for different positions around the country. That’s been easy. Of our 280 employees, only about 40 are in Washington. The rest are all out in the field as placement coordinators, area managers and most are instructors.

PM:With baby-boomers retiring and fewer people in the next generation to replace them, will we have enough people to fill construction jobs?

JC:It’s a concern. We’re competing with other industry sectors from health care to manufacturing to high tech to automotive because the next generation coming in is a much smaller pool. That’s why we have to have these programs to interest young people and provide them with certificates of completion.

If you look at the home-building side, it’s attractive to young people but you have to get to  those in high school who are not necessarily interested in going to college - even those who are- and want to do something with their hands. And they want a career where they can see some upward movement. That’s the sale we’ve got to make.

PM:If you had only one message to give to plumbing and heating contractors, what would it be?

JC:They need to be engaged in the creation of a trained work force, which is their lifeblood. They can’t perform their tasks without skilled and trained workers, so they need to be engaged in that process. Once they get skilled workers, their education doesn’t stop. They need to show a career path to those who want to move up in their industry. Some of these kids want to become the contractor. Build a career path. That’s how you can recruit them.