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Charetta Oledibe trained at a BE&K Inc. program like the one in Decatur and, at 18, is earning $900 a week as an electrician’s assistant in Smiths. The former homecoming queen encouraged those in Decatur — especially young women — to consider a career in construction.
Courtesy photo
Charetta Oledibe trained at a BE&K Inc. program like the one in Decatur and, at 18, is earning $900 a week as an electrician’s assistant in Smiths. The former homecoming queen encouraged those in Decatur — especially young women — to consider a career in construction.

Training
before hiring

Digging deeper for labor, BE&K has novel approach

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

What does a company with growth potential do when strangled by a lack of employees?

If that business is BE&K Inc., it offers free training and guaranteed construction jobs.

In a novel approach that underlines the severity of Alabama’s labor shortage, BE&K, an engineering and construction company focusing on high-dollar projects, is keeping its labor engine greased with six-week classes at its Decatur Training Center. On week four, participants get a job offer.

“We’ve put out the call,” said BE&K spokesperson Susan Wasley. “If you are good with your hands, if you want to make a good living, if you’re looking for a better job and a better quality of life, we think we have something for you.”

More sessions

Area workers have answered that call, filling up training sessions hours after BE&K begins accepting applications. BE&K, still hungry, just added more training sessions.

“The construction industry is short 1 million people today,” Wasley said. “We can’t find people, and that limits our growth.”

For those who grew up in harsher economic times, the state’s 3.6 percent unemployment rate sounds like an unambiguous positive. Many North Alabama counties, indeed, have fallen below 3 percent.

Economists call that “full employment,” and for employers, as BE&K discovered, it has its drawbacks.

Inflation issues

Bill Wilkes, an economics professor at Athens State University, said the state might have dropped below the “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment.” That’s a mouthful, but a revealing one. Fall below the number, which some economists place as high as 6 percent, and labor shortages cause inflation in both wages and retail products.

“Demand for the output of the economy is so high that employers have the desire to hire more people,” Wilkes said. “They dig deeper and deeper into the barrel.”

“Digging deeper” means employers need to invest more in training and pay more in wages.

Enter BE&K.

“Our target audience,” said Wasley, “is the underemployed. It’s not just free training. It’s free training and a good job.”

After about 45 hours of training spread out over a six-week period, participants receive construction certification that gets them in the door at BE&K or elsewhere.

The company started the program in August, when it opened its training center on Alabama 20 West, and it hasn’t looked back. It now offers day and night classes, all of which are booked until mid-April.

The training, open to those 18 and over who pass a telephone screening process, includes an introduction to construction safety; hands-on training with power tools; and an introduction to trades including welding, electrical work and pipefitting.

Women, by the way, are cordially invited.

And it includes a job offer for every participant.

“We don’t commit to specific wages,” said Wasley, “but we do offer a job at week four. If you take this training, we offer you a job in the BE&K system.”

Public relations

Tammie Johnson of Decatur does some welding during a test. BE&K is not the first to recognize that extreme measures are needed to cope with full employment and it won’t be the last. Count on its innovative solution, however, to serve as a model for future employers starved for ever-more-valuable labor.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
Tammie Johnson of Decatur does some welding during a test. BE&K is not the first to recognize that extreme measures are needed to cope with full employment and it won’t be the last. Count on its innovative solution, however, to serve as a model for future employers starved for ever-more-valuable labor.
There’s a bit of showmanship in the job guarantee, maybe, and Wasley acknowledges a public relations angle.

“It’s a matter of educating society, starting all over again about construction as a career choice,” Wasley explained. “Nobody wants to go into construction because they think it’s dirty, hot and low-paying.”

Digging deeper in the barrel of labor prospects can be rewarding for both employer and employee.

A graduate from a similar BE&K training program in Birmingham, 18-year-old Charetta Oledibe, is an electrician’s helper at a BE&K site in Smiths. She was a homecoming queen, cheerleader and dancer in high school.

She likes to tell the story of renting her first apartment after starting her BE&K job.

She went to the landlord — with the required paycheck stub — and was told she could rent the apartment only with a guarantee from her mother.

Her paycheck would cover the $460 per month rent, the landlord explained, but not with much left over.

In the absence of a credit history, it was a bad risk for the landlord.

Finally understanding the disconnect, Oledibe spoke up. “But ma’am, this paycheck is for one week of work, not one month.”

An embarrassed landlord looked again at the $900 paycheck and welcomed her youngest tenant, Momma’s signature not required.

Attracting women

Oledibe said young Decatur women should take advantage of the opportunities in construction.

BE&K, digging deeper, hopes women are listening.

“It’s a great career for females,” Oledibe said. “The (electrical) field I’m in takes more brains than muscles.”

BE&K is not the first to recognize that extreme measures are needed to cope with full employment and it won’t be the last. Count on its innovative solution, however, to serve as a model for future employers starved for ever-more-valuable labor.

And count on the need for employers to dig deeper into the labor pool to uncover more gems like Oledibe.

“I was the ‘pretty girl’ in school,” she laughed. “My heels had to match my shirt and my shirt had to match my barrette. It was hard to make the transition to wearing these big, ugly, man-pants and boots. But once you get that check, it’s worth it.”

“Tell them up there they might have to come to work looking ugly,” she continued with a non-construction-worker giggle, “but they’ll have the money to look pretty on the weekends.

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