Jon BrowningAmerica is in trouble. While the unemployment rate is currently low, there remains an abundance of unfilled skilled craft positions leading to a widening skills gap. Companies like Southern Air Inc. from Lynchburg, Virginia, are doing their best to leave craft industries stronger than how they found it. It's such a curious problem since we, as a society, are dependent on constant electricity, reliable heating and air conditioning and toilets that, well, do exactly what we need them to do! We're telling our children the best way to be successful is by attending a four-year college. Many of them enter the workforce owing tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debts, pursuing jobs outside of their degree field. That's not much of a head start entering the workforce. Of course, people do find great jobs based on their educations, but how many smart, bachelor’s degree-holding scholars just aren't finding work? You simply cannot say you don't know someone who has a degree, student loans to pay off and is working in a restaurant. “The college-for-all mentality has fostered neglect of a realistic substitute: vocational education,” says Bryan Caplan, George Mason University economics professor, in his article ‘The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone’. “All vocational education teaches specific job skills, and all vocational education revolves around learning by doing, not learning by listening.” Kenny BryantAt Southern Air, we couldn't agree more. It's why we created the Wheels of Learning program in 1995, providing hands-on training in a variety of fields including electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and sheet metal. Students ranging from high school age to adults have the opportunity to earn a journeyman's license in their field by attending classes two nights a week, using curriculum from the National Center for Construction Education and Research. Southern Air is one of the few programs in Virginia, certified through the Commonwealth of Virginia, allowing students who complete 8,000 hours of classroom and on-the-job training to be exempt from the final Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation exam and granted their journeyman's license. Becoming a licensed journeyman is a major milestone in the career of a craft professional, bringing them one step closer to becoming a master craftsman. Journeymen bring confidence to employers who can be certain they are dealing with trained and experienced individuals. Most craft professionals are smart, competent and ready for the field, but find themselves overwhelmed by the test. The final exams themselves are incredibly difficult to pass. According to the DPOR and Commonwealth of Virginia, some craft have an average passing rate as low as 49%. At $240 per exam and VA code book, failing is not only frustrating, but expensive. There are companies who offer four-year training, but students can pay up to three thousand dollars per semester! Southern Air keeps that money in our students’ wallets, and provides the same education for free, allowing men and women to earn their journeyman’s license without ever walking into a testing facility. Coty Hall and Robert Doss“A well-trained workforce is the most valuable asset in any community, making Southern Air’s apprenticeship program an investment in the next generation of craft professionals,” says Sierria Lopez, Southern Air's director of personnel development. “American high schools have largely shifted their focus to preparing students for four-year colleges rather than vocational or trade schools, leading to shortages in the construction workforce. To keep up with the demand of our customers, we started focusing on training our own workforce.” America needs plumbers, electricians, sheet metal tradesmen, HVAC technicians, and craft professionals in numerous other proficiencies. Southern Air has trained and certified 118 new journeymen and plans to introduce 73 more students into the industry as journeymen, some as early as this year. Southern Air is simply a mechanical and electrical contracting company trying to do the right thing, by replenishing craft professionals in our industry. Because America's craft industries are in trouble. Is your company helping the cause?

Photos: Jon Browning, Kenny Bryant, apprentice Coty Hall and Robert Doss


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  1. Bill Stricker | Mar 23, 2018
    The key here is this company has taken ownership of their recruiting and training problem.  More companies must follow their example.  
  2. asdasd | Feb 15, 2018
    nice post
  3. patrick G Anderson | Feb 01, 2018

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    About NCCER

    NCCER develops standardized construction and maintenance curricula and assessments with portable credentials. These credentials are tracked through NCCER’s National Registry which allows organizations and companies to track the qualifications of their craft professionals and/or check the qualifications of possible new hires. The National Registry also assists craft professionals by maintaining their records in a secure database.