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Learning curve

EJP’s apprenticeship program proves a valuable asset for the growing waterworks company

By Kathryn Buxton
 
Robbie Chadwick remembers the day in 2007 that Peter Prescott, E.J. Prescott CEO, announced he wanted to establish an apprenticeship program. Prescott talked about wanting a program that could take raw talent and develop it through a long-term training program modeled on a highly successful program developed at Cianbro, Maine’s largest construction company.
 
“Peter and Peter Vigue [chairman and CEO of Cianbro] are good friends and they had been talking about the problems of finding good, skilled workers,” remembered Chadwick. Vigue’s company already had founded its apprenticeship program, and Prescott saw the opportunity to create a similar one at E.J. Prescott (EJP) to develop a pool of skilled workers to help the company grow.
 
“Peter tasked me and Bob Moody (head of EJP’s Safety and Training department) to create the program at the Friday Manager’s Meeting and that evening, we scribbled out a rough plan on a cocktail napkin,” recounted Chadwick.
 
The two long-time EJP employees had worked their way up through the company, and they drew heavily on their own experience of learn-as-you-go. That first night, they broke the company’s business down discipline by discipline and planned for a program that would give students time to learn every aspect, from inside and outside sales to service and installation.
 
“We decided on two years, because that’s about how long it is before new employees really know what they’re doing,” said Chadwick.
 
Moody and Chadwick dubbed the new program the “University of Prescott” – UP for short – and while not a true university, the program certainly provides its students with a well-rounded education in the waterworks industry, as well as a bright future in a growing business.
 
Building a business
 
The investment of time and resources to create and maintain an apprenticeship program benefits the company as much as its graduates. Since the company’s founding in 1955, EJP has grown by filling niches in the industry. It took off in the 1960s when the company introduced the first factory-direct trucking service for cast iron pipe in New England and, in doing so, expanded their truck fleet and product line. In the 1970s, EJP opened its first two branches, one in Concord, New Hampshire and the other in Montpelier, Vermont. In 1978, the company founded a new division, Quality Water Products (QWP), in South Barre, Massachusetts. In the 1980s, six new branches were opened in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Indiana. During this time, EJP started two new divisions – PEP Transportation and Meter Backflow Services (MBS).
 
The early 1990’s brought further expansion, with additional branches opening in Maine, Indiana, Ohio and Massachusetts. A new location in Rhode Island was established in 1994 and Ohio added a branch in 1995. The company added two more branches in New York in 1997 and 2000 and opened another branch in South Burlington, Vermont in 2002.
 
In 2001, EJP bought Red Hed Supply & Manufacturing and that enabled the company to expand its distribution in Lincoln, Rhode Island and Cape Cod, and North Hatfield Massachusetts. (The Lincoln manufacturing facility in Rhode Island still operates under the Red Hed name.) In 2005, EJP added branches in Keene, New Hampshire and Syracuse, New York. In 2006, the company expanded to Jeffersonville, Indiana. The company opened PPF (Plastic Pipe Fabrication) in 2008, a company that manufactures prefabricated and custom piping components, manholes and catch basins.
 
With so many interrelated divisions and 26 different locations reaching from New England to the Midwest, a big challenge has been finding the right people to grow with the company, according to EJP Director of Human Resources Bryan Flagg.
 
“For us, the University of Prescott is like an employment agency,” said Flagg. He noted that by enrolling up to eight new students in the program annually, the company has a ready pool of skilled talent upon which it can draw.
 
Building a team
 
A program like UP fills a profound need for both the company and for the young people fortunate enough to participate in the program. Statistics show 16 percent of Americans aged 16-24 are out of school and out of work. In Maine, the figure is even higher – 16.6 percent, and the impact of prolonged unemployment can have a lasting effect on a region’s economy and on individuals and their families.
 
Apprenticeship programs like those developed by EJP and Cianbro, attempt to address the heart of the problem by giving young people skills that lead to long-term economic independence.
 
Experience is not essential, according to Safety and Training Director Moody: “We train them in all aspects of our business from working in the yard all the way through what we people in the home office do. We don’t look for any experience. Experience won’t help you because we want to teach you our way.”
 
First, though, they have to complete the application and make it through the interview process. The interviews have two parts. Initially candidates meet with the company’s division heads.
 
“We sit down with them and basically try to talk them out of it,” said Chadwick. “We tell them about the long hours and the low pay. We let them know that this is not easy.”
 
Candidates who remain undaunted and impress the division heads are often invited to interview with EJP’s owners and executive committee, including President Steven Prescott and CEO Peter Prescott. They also spend time with current and past UP students.
 
“We don’t want to see anyone fail, so we take our time and really get to know the candidates and let them get to know us,” said Flagg. Over the years since the program began, he said, the best candidates fit a certain profile. “I look at their spirit and willingness to listen and their flexibility. This is a crazy business, so you need to be ready to handle change and be a problem solver. You need work together and be part of the team to be successful.”
 
Once selected, students are assigned a mentor, a company veteran who guides them through the program.
 
Chadwick is quick to point out that the first two years can seem like a challenge. Students are paid a small salary and the hours are long. The “classroom” moves week-to-week and sometimes day-to-day, depending on which EJP location has a project that can add a skill to the student’s portfolio.
 
While UP students are asked to give a lot, they get a lot in return – a trade and a range of marketable skills that are honed on the job.
 
Upon graduation, each student is guaranteed a job – either in delivery, estimating, the warehouse, inside sales, outside sales, division manager or in service. The program’s depth and expansive reach has paid off with good retention rates. Sixty percent of UP students who have completed the program since 2008 are still with the company.
 
‘A lifelong career’
 
Chadwick says the program has improved since it was first launched in 2008, and today is the first apprenticeship program developed for the waterworks industry that has been accredited by the U.S. Department of Labor.
 
Tyler Wing, one of the current class of five University of Prescott students, has enthusiastically embraced the program. A former National Guardsman, he said he was drawn to the program because it offers the opportunity to “step into a lifelong career.” Wing did his research, talking to program graduates who wholeheartedly endorsed it. He applied and hasn’t looked back since. “It was definitely a good idea to do this,” said Wing.
 
While he originally thought he would like to go into sales, he has discovered an affinity for service work in the field.
Wing’s experience is typical, according to Hanrahan. “Being able to move students around and expose them to the broad spectrum of what we do at EJP, that’s huge,” said Hanrahan. “That’s the beauty of this program.”
 
In the past, UP students have started by earning their 10-hour OSHA certificate. Chadwick said, that after one student recently completed requirements for a 30-hour certificate, the plan is to make the 30-hour certificate a new standard for incoming apprentices.
 
“Safety is really important in this business, so it’s a good way to start them off,” said Chadwick.
 
Groomed for success
 
The training is diverse. During the two years, students make at least one presentation to company executives, they run a division for a week and, of course, they have lots of customer interaction while making deliveries and performing service calls. Students also spend a month at EJP’s offices in Indiana and Ohio. That gives them the opportunity to experience the different types of work and company cultures at the different divisions. As they progress through the program, students often go where they are needed most, filling in on big jobs or providing back up when an employee is out sick.
 
“After six months, you begin to see where their talents and gifts lay,” said Chadwick, who described the program as “an extended job interview.” So if a UP student likes working out of the Vermont office, Chadwick said, he or she is going to work a little harder there in the hopes of making a good impression.
 
William Terry, a marketing representative working out of the Gardiner, Maine office, was the very first graduate of the program, and he is an example of the program’s success. UP has given him a vocation and he has continued his education since graduation, with support from his employer, taking classes in hydraulics, erosion control and other subjects.
 
Being able to attract smart, motivated young talent like Terry and Wing, according to Chadwick, will be the keystone of EJP’s success in the future. He noted that like so many Maine companies, EJP’s management is top heavy with baby boomers who eventually will be looking to retire.
 
“Look around and, in 10 or 20 years, those will be University of Prescott graduates in those jobs,” Chadwick said. n
FMI: To learn more about the University of Prescott and download an application, visit www.EJPrescott.com.

 

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