The job of a foreman may come with a bigger paycheck, but a key downside to the job has been that it hasn’t historically come with an instruction manual.
That’s been changing, though, thanks to the decision by the IBEW’s Seventh District to create a foreman education and training program called the Foreman’s Development Series.
“When you become a foreman, too often you learn on the job, getting tips from here and there,” said FDS Executive Director Tom Ross, a retired longtime member of Albuquerque, N.M., Local 611. “You make a whole lot of mistakes and hope you get better at it.”
“Our hope is that FDS shortens that learning curve,” added Ross, who for many years has worked with the New Mexico JATC and has been overseeing FDS since 2020.
Inaugurated in 2010 and continually updated and refined, FDS stresses active learning via group problem-solving and role-playing exercises. Its training modules are meant to prepare candidates for a variety of real-world construction job scenarios by covering such topics as the foreman’s role, material and production management, and labor relations, with current and potential foremen participating alongside experienced journeymen.
The seeds of FDS were planted in the mid-2000s. The Seventh District, which services members in Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, had implemented several programs to aid in expanding market share in the Construction branch. One of these was a comprehensive Code of Excellence program, adopted by all construction locals in the district, that stressed the need for qualified supervision in addition to improved worker productivity. At various Code training sessions, members reported hearing complaints, verified as valid, from contractors about a lack of qualified foremen, something that too often prevented them from staying competitive or bidding more work. “A situation like this affects all of our livelihoods,” Ross said.
A study, commissioned in 2004 by the IBEW’s industry partners at the National Electrical Contractors Association and conducted by the Electrical Contracting Foundation, backed up the contractors’ complaints. It showed that, in a typical union shop model, labor in the field controls productivity and profitability. Yet, more than 90% of construction foremen working in the industry reported having almost no management or professional leadership education and training. Further, barely half of electrical contractors were offering any in-house management training, often because they weren’t large enough to have the resources for it.
The study, whose findings were supported by reports from members and contractors, prompted then-Seventh District International Vice President Jonathan Gardner to determine that his district should develop a foreman education and training program. “If we can’t expand our market share due to a lack of qualified supervision, we can’t go anywhere,” he said.
Gardner knew that NECA already offered a lecture program called Electrical Project Supervisor, but the vice president wanted something more widely available, dynamic and interactive that stressed industry best practices. He determined that creating an IBEW-led, best-practices-based education program for foremen would help make contractors more competitive and open to expansion.
“We needed to address these problems with practical solutions,” said Gardner, who retired in 2013. “Education and training also improve our image with owners and users.”
Working with Rosendin Electric, which offered the use of its training department, Gardner in 2009 formed an FDS committee consisting of Rosendin employees working alongside IBEW members from throughout the district, all of whom had experience as foremen, general foremen, or educators.
“We decided that we had so much work coming in the Seventh District that we couldn’t wait,” said Gary Buresh, then an international representative with the district office who helped lead the committee and later conducted many FDS sessions. “FDS could enhance labor-management partnerships and change the culture of construction.”
By year’s end, the committee had drafted FDS’s first set of class modules, and the program officially rolled out in 2010. Since then, FDS train-the-trainer sessions have been conducted at the Austin Electrical Training Alliance in Texas for IBEW members from all over, usually with 40 to 50 participants in each session. Instructors are a mix of trained active and retired IBEW members, and classes are open to anyone interested in the foreman’s program.
Over time, Rosendin departed the committee while various IBEW members from around the country have regularly swapped in to continue teaching these train-the-trainer sessions. It’s a “labor of love” for them, Ross said, with staffers spending weeks on the road conducting these sessions and teaching FDS in their home locals.
FDS is made up of 16 modules, 12 standard and four advanced. Anyone wanting to teach these classes at their JATC, union hall or company is required to take the three week-long train-the-trainer sessions, typically held in February, June and October. At last count, 129 locals representing every U.S. district boasted certified FDS trainers.
Programs and personnel are coordinated by Angie Burris, the Seventh District office’s executive assistant.
FDS is set up so that students in their home locals can enter training at any point in the multi-module cycle. “It’s a perfect complement for any employer’s in-house training program,” said Buresh, who retired in 2020. “It’s modular, so they take only what they need.”
Program materials are updated to account for data and technological advancements. “In the beginning, modules talked about paperwork,” Ross said. “Now, we’re talking about using software on the job, since every foreman has a laptop or tablet.”
“We recognized early that we had to continually monitor the program, and make improvements to accommodate technologies and industry changes,” Gardner added. “Tom was the driver; he put the nuts and bolts to it. He really understands productivity.”
“We’re helping the right people take on more leadership,” Buresh said.
As word of FDS continues to spread, its positive effects are increasingly noticed. Notably, FDS has been adopted by the National Training Institute.
“We have more confidence in our field and the ability to get the job done,” said Guy Katz, director of manpower and safety at Alterman Inc. in San Antonio. “It’s not a perfect world on the jobsite, and if you can smooth out some of the hurdles, which this class is doing, it makes it a lot better for everybody.”
Learn more at ibew.org/7thdistrict or call the Seventh District office at 817-557-1611 for information on participating locals and enrollment. FDS also will have a booth at the Construction and Maintenance Conference in Washington, D.C., April 20-22.