By Janet Lane
Published in The Ironworker

August 2017

Ironworkers in the U.S. and Canada are going to be busy for at least the next decade, if all the infrastructure projects promised for both countries are built. At the same time, many older ironworkers will be retiring. Besides building bridges and roads, hospitals and highrises, it’s time to build the next generation workforce. Like most craft unions, the Iron Workers Union is very involved in apprenticeship training, giving the union the opportunity to make sure that the next generation of ironworkers is ready for the changes coming to their trade—including changes in materials, processes and skill requirements.

While training the next generation of ironworkers is important, it’s also time to make sure current members are the best ironworkers in the sector. The best thing an ironworker can be is a really competent ironworker. The union competes with non-union workplaces on the basis of skill. It’s not good enough to just say the union has the most skilled workers, to say, “Better People, Better Built.” In this competitive environment, it’s crucial to truly be the most skilled, the most competent, and be able to prove it. A competent workforce does the work right, and does it safely. Someone is competent when they have the competencies, meaning all the knowledge, skills and attributes, to do their jobs. The best way to assess for competencies is through observation and discussion, not through written testing.

The Iron Workers Union has made a commitment to the movement toward competencies as the best way to train apprentices and develop its members. While the journeyperson’s ticket is the gold standard for the trade, it does not guarantee competence. A truly competent ironworker is able, without close supervision, to do the tasks of their job, every day they’re on the job. The training provided cannot possibly cover every aspect of the job, under all the conditions ironworkers face. However, apprenticeship training is only part of the process. People need to continually develop their skills while they are on the job. Without further development, people will work at aspects of their job for which they are not ready. This can lead to poorer quality work, and less safe working conditions.

Moving to a competency-based approach to training and developing union members sounds like it might be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. A lesson can be learned from what happened at Waiward Steel Inc. in Edmonton, Alberta, and Local 720 (Edmonton, Alberta) and Local 805 (Calgary, Alberta). Even though they have a world-class safety program, Waiward had four major safety incidents between 2010 and 2012. That’s when their leadership vowed that “Never again will someone be almost killed on one of our jobsites.” The first question asked whenever someone is hurt on the job is, “is the worker competent?” The answer is always, “Yes, because he or she has the required certificates.” Waiward realized having the certificates is not enough. Someone may be a journeyperson, but not have performed part of the job they are assigned to or not under the same conditions, at height, or in extreme heat or cold. They want to be sure that people have the ability to do all parts of their jobs, in the right way, which means safely, every day they are on the job.

To be sure that Waiward’s people are competent, the company instituted a competency management program for their whole workforce, from the CEO to the ironworker apprentices. First, they determined what competent looks like and how to judge if someone is competent to do a particular task. They looked at every aspect of every job and built the competency profiles. Then they developed the rating scale, including three levels of competence – ‘mentor,’ ‘highly competent’ and ‘competent,’ and separate ratings for ‘not applicable,’ ‘not suitable’ and ‘needs training.’ They did this with the full cooperation and support of their locals, 720 (in the field) and 805 (in the shop).

Of course, it was not always easy. It took time for the lead hands and foremen to adjust to assessing their crew members using competencies. It’s a formal assessment – and it needs to be done to standards and objectively. The hardest part is telling a journeyperson union brother or sister that they’re not ready to do some parts of the job without more training. But, when the company proved time and again that when an ironworker needs more training they make sure training is offered, it became easier for the foremen to give the ‘needs training’ rating. And, it got to be a whole lot easier when the ironworkers in the shop and the field began to realize when they are rated as needing training in a competence, it doesn’t mean that the company is going to let them go, it means the company is going to invest in them.

The results for Waiward have been spectacular. They have seen an 800 percent increase in the safety record over historical averages. At last count, they were at 4.8 million hours without a lost-time claim. Their people are not just working more safely, they are working more productively, and doing better quality work too. The result for the ironworkers is that they are getting closer to their slogan of “Better People, Better Built.” It’s important to note that Waiward did this even during the downturn in the price of oil, which hit the construction sector in Alberta hard. In the majority of companies, training is the first thing to go when times get tough. However, Waiward has stayed committed to their goal of a safer workplace.

Besides adding value to members and future members, which makes belonging to the union more attractive, there is another major benefit to assessing and training member competencies. Having a truly competent workforce, working safely and doing quality work, is a huge competitive advantage for the union and their contractors. Local 720 dispatches members to other contractors so the whole steel construction sector in the region is getting better.

Because of their role in providing workers for the construction sector, the craft unions are in a unique position. They see trends in the quantity and type of work that is coming on stream. They become aware of trends in new materials and building processes before their individual contractors can see that a change in one of their contracts is part of a larger trend. This capacity, when linked to competency management of their members, could make unions strategic human resources partners with their contractors. Imagine the power of being able to guarantee the fully competent workforce required to do the job, as and when required, for the length of a project!

Waiward Steel was on the cutting edge in Canada when they implemented their competency program. Firms in the U.S. have moved in this direction ahead of Canada, but both countries are behind much of the rest of the world. Working with the Iron Workers Union and having their support for this move was a major step forward. The Iron Workers Union and their industry partner, IMPACT, are taking a lead in with this shift, which will be transformational for the sector. A competent workforce is a safe and productive workforce. For the Iron Workers Union, their members and the contractors who employ them, a move to a more competent workforce is win-win-win.

Janet Lane is the director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation