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Keys to Being an Apprentice Mentor

We don’t need to tell you that the talent pool for trade professions is shrinking, but how about this: The National Electrical Contractors Association estimates that 7,000 electricians join the workforce each year, while 10,000 retire.

The simple math: There isn’t enough young talent interested in the trade vocation to offset the retiring workforce population.

For electrical, plumbing, HVAC and other skilled contracting professionals, this means the potential value of each new employee is higher than ever before. The price of losing a high quality employee or not developing them fully could be devastating.

Training and retaining new talent is vital to the health of your contracting business.

While skilled worker numbers decline as high school graduates opt for traditional four-year college educations, the number of new apprentices in the United States grew by nearly 100,000 participants from 2010 to 2016.

Related Resource: Recruiting for the Next Generation

Think about this: Although it’s only about the size of Michigan, England started 510,000 new apprentices in 2012 while the U.S. started 147,000. The resources to establish apprenticeships are available.

With the opportunity available for contractors to build and develop the next generation of talent through apprenticeships, below are the three keys to being a successful apprenticeship mentor.

1. Listen to Your Mentees

Creating value for you and for the mentee all begins with listening. As a mentor, you should act as a colleague first and as an expert second. In other words, before you teach, you must listen.

Mentor showing student information on a meter
The most effective listeners intentionally practice active listening.

What it is: Active listening is an approach to listening that helps you increase your understanding and retention, while simultaneously helping the other person feel that you are, in fact, listening.

How to do it: It starts with eye contact. Without eye contact you could become sidetracked by other distractions, while the other person could feel that you aren’t engaged. Related to eye contact, be cognizant of your body language. Communication is 93% nonverbal. Convey interest in your body language, posture and tone of voice.

Finally, and the part most people forget, is a concept written by Stephen Covey in the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. He states that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Think about it the next time you’re in a conversation—are you listening to comprehend what they’re saying, or are you listening for a chance to respond.
Ultimately, effective listening improves organizational communication, empathy, respect and improves overall work performance.

2. Teach and Share Your Experiences

Plumber showing student pipes under a sink

Since you’ve started by listening effectively, your relationship with the mentee becomes more personal and meaningful. Listening and communicating on an even, interpersonal level builds mutual respect and understanding. Consequently, an apprentice will be more willing to accept challenges and critiques from someone they respect and feel cares for them beyond being an employee.

Effective teaching methods, which are taken directly from a resource created specifically for schoolteachers, directly apply to other arenas, like trade apprenticeships. Traditionally, instructors have tried to balance telling and showing in order to teach. However, the truth is that involving is the third (and possibly most important) part of successful instruction.

What does involving look like?

Involving: This is the difference between telling the mentee what to do and allowing them to figure it out on their own, based on the parameters provided. It’s the difference between providing the answer and instead asking the right questions to enable the student to get to the answer or solution on their own.

Rather than simply telling the mentee how to do something, or showing them what they need to do, consider how they can struggle through the process or problem on their own to take the answer to heart.

Teachers should keep this quote from an ancient Chinese Philospher in mind: “Tell me and I forget; show and I remember; involve me and I understand.”

3. Learn From Young Pros

As with any relationship, both teacher and student have something to offer and something to learn.

What is it that you, the established contractor, can learn from an apprentice or new employee?

Two men in hard hats looking at an air conditioning unit

Trade skills: For one, the apprenticeship process enables you to hone your craft as you teach. Have you ever had to teach a son, daughter, niece or nephew how to ride a bike? Whether you’ve ridden a bike 10 or 500 times, explaining the process of learning is difficult. You see, we can easily say what we are doing, but have trouble explaining how to do it.

Whether your profession is construction, mechanics or plumbing, doing it has likely become much easier to do than explaining it. By mentoring a young employee or apprentice, you must return to learning instead of just doing.

Managerial skills: The other area of potential growth for a mentor is in the managerial realm. Along with becoming a better teacher, you must become a better delegator, planner and overall manager. As your relationship grows with the mentee, you will begin to recognize what tasks can be delegated and which still need your help.

Interpersonal skills: Lastly, building a relationship with a younger employee helps you further your ability to do so again. The world’s best math teachers didn’t flawlessly explain the quadratic formula to their first class. However, by the time they did a second, or fifth, or eighteenth time, they had it mastered. You can do the same with your trade over time.

Reap the Benefits of a Job Well Done

If you successfully exhibit the previous three keys to being an apprenticeship mentor (or general new employee supervisor), retention of the employee is almost certain.

Believe it or not, the U.S. Department of Labor states that 91% of apprentices that complete an apprenticeship are still employed nine months later.

Such high retention rates signify a huge opportunity for trade professions. Significant loyalty is built up, not only between the apprentice and the business, but also between the apprentice and their mentor.

People follow people. With the size of the skilled laborers workforce in decline, develop and retain apprentices and other new employees to positively alter the success of your business into the future.