Words: Cassandra Stern
Despite the annual looming threat of increasingly severe weather across the country, Americans are more ill-prepared than ever to rebuild after a devastating ecological event. The global staffing firm ManpowerGroup reports in its 2016-17 U.S. talent shortage survey that skilled trade workers, such as masons, are the most difficult job to fill in the country and have been since 2010 (gracing the Top Ten list nine times in the previous eleven years). Despite nearly half of all employers offering training and development to existing staff, and twenty percent offering higher salary packages or other perks and benefits, nearly a quarter of employers still report that they cannot fill positions due to a lack of applicants.
The lack of qualified masons and other skilled workers is an exceptionally concerning issue on a national scale, and the consequences of a lack of skilled workers are numerous and troubling. However, an organization in North Carolina seeks to remedy this problem, and after nearly twenty years successfully launched a position that essentially focuses on the recruitment, education, and training of new masons in March of this year. New programs and events have already greatly benefited the local community, and with minor modifications, their success could greatly improve the national deficit of skilled workers.
The North Carolina Masonry Contractors Association, or NCMCA, is quickly establishing itself as an innovative front-runner in the masonry industry. In the 1960s, groups like the Mason Contractors of Western Carolina existed independently, but after joining with other masonry associations from several of North Carolina’s larger cities, these groups would come to form NCMCA in April 1974. This year, the NCMCA is proud to represent 140 company members, sixty-six of which are masonry contracting firms. NCMCA members enjoy a myriad of benefits including access to the NCMCA Insurance Program, which offers competitive prices from exceptional providers and underwriters who specialize in coverage for masonry and construction companies.
Participation in the NCMCA promotes fellowship and facilitates collaboration within the masonry industry, and members can take advantage of continuing education programs at local chapter meetings, conventions and at special Association sponsored workshops and seminars. Although not restricted to members only, the NCMCA also offers the NCMCA Masonry Contractor Certification Program for companies and individuals both, which is quickly becoming the industry recognized standard for quality masonry installation and craftsmanship. [https://www.ncmca.com/join-us/services-benefits]
However, this focus on education and fellowship was not always the case for the NCMCA, and the creation of their new outreach development programs are in response to a great need. In the mid to late twentieth century, the Brick Association of North America (later, The Brick Association of the Carolina’s) assumed responsibility for the education and implementation of vocational masonry training in North (and later South) Carolina high schools. At the turn of the century, the consolidation of the brick industry reduced the need for a statewide or even regional promotional group as locally owned firms were bought out by larger manufacturers.
Consequently, the Brick Association of the Carolina’s was forced to reduce its expenditures and eliminate vocational masonry training programs. The educational void echoed throughout the entire region, and with no of coordinated attempts at improvement, school programs began to show signs of neglect. The 2008 economic downturn further hindered any relief efforts, and financial allocations to vocational masonry training have simply not been feasible for many organizations over the past decade. Thankfully, through NCMCA and their hiring of local industry standout Ryan Shaver, this discouraging trend seems to be on the edge of a drastic turnaround.
Shaver does not hail from generations of thoroughbred mason stock. Rather, his interest began at age 16, when an affable high school instructor lured him into a masonry class with the promise of skipping English on Fridays. His aptitude for brick and block was quickly apparent, and to this day he credits teacher Doug Drye for changing his life in numerous and remarkable ways. As his knowledge and skills expanded, so did his career. After winning several state and national contests, Shaver was hired by a company called McGee Brothers. Mentored by owner Sam McGee, he was empowered to rise through the ranks of the company over the next twelve years, before obtaining his General Contractor’s license and beginning to construct homes.
The 2008 Recession violently interrupted his plans for success and left him searching for answers. At a crossroads, Shaver turned to his high school mentor, who inspired him to give teaching a try. Before he knew it, he found himself back at his old high school, in the very classroom where his own masonry career began years before. As an educator, Shaver strove to get as many young people excited about the trade and get them a place in the industry as best as he possibly could because he knew what an impact masonry has made on his own life. In his six years as an instructor at Mt. Pleasant High School, he had five state and five national champions in various masonry competitions across the country, a very impressive feat. He then went on to work in product promotion, a career move that he credits with uniquely qualifying him for his current role.
In late 2017, NCMCA president Kent Huntley finally found himself in a position to make a difference. With the recent upswing in the national economy, he finally had enough finances available to open a new position within his organization that had been discussed for many years, and already had a man in mind for the job. The need for a liaison between the skilled masonry community and the high schools from which they recruit was dire, and Ryan Shaver’s recent work with NCMCA member Johnson Concrete Products Company in workforce development was both impressive and inspiring.
Once put into motion, Huntley moved quickly and sought to create the position of “Workforce Development & Training Coordinator,” whose responsibilities would include serving as an ombudsman for masonry training, especially within public education. This was also a huge risk for the NCMCA: the expense of maintaining the proposed WDTC position would almost double the association’s annual operating budget, which is primarily financed through member dues and fundraising efforts. In Huntley’s own words, “this was a huge leap of faith.”
One thing is certain: the risk did not lie in the decision to hire Ryan Shaver. Of Shaver, Huntley has nothing to offer but the highest praise. “Ryan is a unique individual. He has a passion, he has a unique position because he brings a specific skill set of being a mason, he’s been in the sales force, and has also been a high school masonry instructor…he can talk to me as a mason, yet he can go to the schools and relate to the kids,” Huntley states. “I think we got about one hundred applicants and we took the top six to interview, Ryan, being one of them, and it was clear he was made for the job.” Former NCMCA President, Gary Joyner, agrees with Huntley, adding “he [Ryan Shaver] was best qualified for the job…Ryan has only been with us since March but I could not be more pleased with what he is doing and with what he has already accomplished. I can’t imagine anyone more suited for this assignment.”
No one is more aware of just how high the stakes are than Ryan Shaver. “Now’s the time,” says Shaver. “We can’t afford to wait any longer. We have to act on any opportunity we have now to formulate programs and get youth back involved in our trade…every issue we [the masonry industry] have hinges on the workforce.” When he decided to accept the position of Workforce Development and Training Coordinator (WDTC), he immediately began planning and sketching out short and long-term goals to ensure his efforts would be a success. NCMCA board members made it clear his main goal would be to act as a conduit for high school students, connecting them to the NCMCA so that by graduation, they will be able to have immediate access to full-time employment.
His mission, however, is much more deeply personal. For Shaver, the most important part is being able to give back to others the gifts and opportunities that masonry has given him. “I explained the trades to a class the other day by using a big oak tree as an example,” recounts Shaver. He said, “your roots are your foundation and that’s what holds the tree upright, the trunk represents the student and who they are. The branches are how he or she develops, if you’re really good at sales, equipment operations, or laying brick and block, there’s a branch for every one of those traits. But the root is the trade, and where you take it is up to you.”
As WDTC, Shaver has a multitude of responsibilities resting on his shoulders. On any given day, he oversees approximately 85 masonry programs within high schools across North Carolina. A large portion of his role is working directly with individuals, providing tools and materials to lay brick and block with students, assisting with instructor training, and coordinating four annual state masonry competitions, including SkillsUSA. To cultivate interest, Shaver also develops programs to help introduce young people to the trade at the earliest possible age. By combining and modifying National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) with On The Job Training (OTJT) programs, the NCMCA can now offer 16-year-old students an opportunity to earn 12 dollars an hour, far more attractive than the $7.25 an hour minimum wage typically earned by their peers and with the potential to earn far more upon graduation. Outside of the classroom, Shaver divides his time between acting as a liaison between the NCMCA and the Career Technical Education Directors (CTED) of each county, forming good relationships with state leaders to assist in implementing new programs, and handling career fair outreach across the state.
Clearly, Shaver took off running back in March and hasn’t slowed down since. His first victory was gaining approval for the North Carolina pre-apprenticeship program agreement on May 18, which is the first of its kind to become a statewide agreement. Despite having only two weeks to get information out to high schools statewide before students were released for the summer, he was still able to sign up 24 pre-apprentices, and all successfully completed the program. Since being hired as WDTC, he also does weekly events in local communities, specifically designed to inspire young women to consider masonry as a lifelong career. The Masonry Life Skills for Girls has allowed young women like Ashton White to pave the way for others to follow her success and prove that women are just as capable masons as men. Above all, Shaver is striving to make masonry more accessible to anyone with some brick, some mortar, and a determination to learn.
His quest for accessibility is very prominent in his future plans with the NCMCA. “In the near future,” says Shaver, “ I’d like to develop a forklift program for our youth, this way we can develop highly trained operators at an earlier age. I’m also working on a training program for our veterans that are coming back. We have a program that I’m currently writing, where a vet comes into an apprenticeship they can still gain and earn all their G.I. Bill as well as earn while they learn in the trade of masonry.” There is clearly no end to Shaver’s goals or optimism, but even he acknowledges that to do his job correctly and successfully, he needs to focus on one thing at a time. Right now, that focus is honed on empowering North Carolina’s youth.
There is no doubt that Shaver is on the right track, and he has the results to support his efforts. The potential that his programs have is incredibly valuable, and could conceivably bring similar results in other states as well. Shaver has previous experience working on a national scale, having worked with the Mason Contractors Association of America (MCAA) and co-chairing Skills National Masonry Competitions, and is very well-qualified to develop programs that can easily translate to other organizations (and even other skilled industries).
The workforce problem is not an issue that is unique to North Carolina- states across the nation are feeling the pressure of too much work and a severe lack of qualified people to perform it. Hurricanes, fires, and droughts have displaced millions of Americans, and there are simply too few people who have the knowledge and the skills to help them rebuild. Ryan Shaver may just have a solution to all of their problems: by taking the time to invest in the future.
Though it will take some time for people to truly appreciate the impact of Shaver’s work in North Carolina, he is already feeling a significant difference in his short time with the NCMCA. “The workforce development work that we’re all doing has connected us and made us all stronger as a group,” says Shaver. “We collaborate more now. We could work together before but now we’re stronger, now that we have a common goal. By collaboration and relationships we’ve built, we’re now able to get masonry in the places we need them to be.”