Lowe’s works to change the narrative of skilled trade jobs

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Kelley Kurtz had been working at Lowe’s for five years when Hurricane Harvey tore through Texas in 2017. She and her daughter were unharmed, but their home was severely damaged.

It was then that she took bold steps to rebuild her home and build a new career in the trades to ensure a future for her and her family.

“I got involved in the Track to the Trades program after seeing a presentation at a store meeting and doing a couple of FaceTime interviews,” she says. “By focusing on the carpentry program, it took my mind off the devastation and helped me rebuild my home without paying a lot of installers.”

For Kurtz and thousands of others, Lowe’s “Generation T” initiative doesn’t just help with repairs — it’s a life-changer. The initiative includes the workforce development program Track to the Trades, which provides alternatives and financial support to employees who want a career in the building trades, a segment of the economy suffering from a severe shortage of skilled workers in areas like carpentry, electrical and heating and air conditioning, as well as sub-trades like window installation.

The labor shortfall is underscored by research from a number of sources. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the nation’s need for workers in the skilled trades is increasing much faster than overall employment growth and an analysis points to a skilled trade gap of more than 500,000 jobs in all construction-related fields by 2026.

Moreover, the Home Improvement Research Institute has reported that more than 60 percent of skilled trade workers agree there is a shortage of labor in the construction industry. That means an ongoing challenge for contractors, 40 percent of whom want to expand their job site workforce.

‘PERCEPTION AND IDENTITY’

Lowe’s did its own research to find out why people weren’t pursuing skilled trade careers. “We found out there’s a perception and identity issue,” says Mike Mitchell, senior director of trade skills and learning innovation for the Mooresville, N.C.-based home improvement chain. “We knew we needed a new national rallying cry in order to speak to a new audience, so we called it ‘Generation T’ for trade. We also asked trade partners to state in social media several times a year that they are supporters of Generation T. We provide the icons and logos, as we do with other awareness programs, in order to have a unified message that would ripple across the industry.”

Lowe’s launched the Generation T marketplace and Track to the Trades program last March. “We wanted to learn if employees had the appetite to train, develop and get placed in apprenticeships outside our business with our installers. It was our first attempt at a program like this since it was designed for internal as well as external mobility,” he says. “There was so much interest that we had to cap it for the first year with about 1,360 of our employees getting into the program.”

The pilot program started in Charlotte, N.C., Denver, Pittsburgh and Richmond, Va., and is now available to all employees chainwide with the exception of those in the corporate headquarters.

“We want to give our field associates first option for enrollment with the guild whether you work in a store in Pittsburgh or Alaska,” Mitchell says, noting that open enrollment is available for several days each month. “Right now, there’s a waiting list because we have so much interest. But we’re trying to find ways to widen the net so more associates can participate.”

He is also encouraged by the program’s gender diversity: About 16 percent of people in the program are women compared with 9 percent industrywide.

PREPARING EMPLOYEES

Lowe’s teamed up with adult education provider Guild Education to implement the training. “I think Lowe’s is leading the way on pre-apprenticeship models that prepare employees for jobs of the future while working at the company,” says Guild Education CEO Rachel Carlson. “The pathways offered by Lowe’s eliminate the all-to-common false choice between trades programs and advancement in higher education. We’re honored to be working with the Lowe’s team on this first-of-a-kind partnership.”

The program has been an educational experience for Lowe’s as well. “We’ve learned that associates want to move up in the stores or with our robust network of installation partners,” Mitchell says. “As we started to understand our employees, we started getting emails from installers and repair companies around the country telling us that this was a great program and that they wanted to be a part of it. That’s when we asked our field leaders to set up job placement interviews with some of these companies.”

Some sub-trades like granite countertops and flooring are so specialized that they are the ones in the most need. “In the past, the knowledge was often passed down from father to son, who continued the family business. We’re trying to find a way to institutionalize it,” Mitchell says. “That’s why Generation T partners with community colleges, installers, builders and repairers around the country who have on-the-job training in the trades.”

At its essence, Track to the Trades is a pre-apprenticeship program. By enrolling, associates are telling field or store leadership that they might be leaving the company in 10 months or just working in the stores part-time while apprenticing with local installers.

“It’s making people job-ready so when they’re facing a potential new employer, hiring them is essentially a no-brainer,” Mitchell says. “We’re providing them with people not only skilled in the trades but also knowledgeable about customer service.”

The tuition process has also been an attraction: Lowe’s pays the full cost of $2,500 upfront so those enrolled don’t have to deal with reimbursement. Guild Education helps associates enroll, handles operations and academic coaching, Mitchell says; the company has also worked with companies like Walmart, Chipotle and Starbucks.

Lowe’s is also looking to expand its reach in the trades. At present, the program is focused on five areas: carpentry, plumbing, HVAC, electrical and appliance repair, though the company is also looking at future opportunities for specialized certifications such as aging-in-place, an industry term for seniors staying in their homes and modifying their homes so they can live there safely. Meanwhile, associates have their own opinions. “For one thing, they are recommending we focus on green technology,” he says.

People like Kelley Kurtz might be the best advertisement for continuing to expand a program that can help guide people along the path to a lifelong career. She is now the Dallas project manager for a major retailer. “I never would have had the opportunity if Lowe’s didn’t offer the program,” Kurtz says. “And sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”

Len Lewis is a veteran journalist and author covering the retail industry in the United States, Canada, Europe and South America.

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