By Mason Nichols
For Mel Marshall, president of Mel C. Marshall Industrial Consultants Inc., education programming at the National Precast Concrete Association has always provided ample satisfaction.
“It’s a selfish feeling,” Marshall said. “People say, ‘Great, we appreciate you doing this.’ I say, ‘I’m doing it because I love it. I absolutely love it.’”
Thankfully, the students love it too. Marshall is one of many industry experts who serve as the core team to design and shape the overall approach of NPCA’s education programming, which has gained interest, excitement and participation over the past two decades.
Back to basics
Since its inception in 1965, NPCA has been committed to providing members with many invaluable resources. But in the early ‘90s, NPCA leadership recognized more needed to be done to ensure precast concrete products are manufactured to the highest standards.
Ty Gable, president of NPCA, noted that at that time the association offered educational courses that were limited in both quantity and scope.
“We would have some panel discussions on things, but only a few, and the emphasis is on a few,” he said. “Most of this training was for owners, centering on topics such as how to run your business.”
Due to the focus on upper-level management, technical training on production processes was severely limited. The o
nly option available for those interested in learning such techniques was The Fundamentals of Concrete, a program led by the Portland Cement Association.
Though PCA’s training opportunity was comprehensive, it contained no mention of precast concrete. As a result, Gable approached PCA to determine if the materials used in The Fundamentals of Concrete could be repurposed for a new, precast-specific course offering. After obtaining PCA’s approval and leveraging the aid of NPCA staff and industry suppliers, The Fundamentals of Precast Concrete course was created.
A key ingredient
With a precast-specific training program in place, NPCA was poised to begin contributing to the development of production-level employees throughout the industry. However, something was still missing.
Mark Thompson, vice president of Jefferson Concrete Corp., recalled education being a crucial part of the conversation at the Industry Outlook Conference in Seattle he attended in the late ‘90s. Specifically, he highlighted the apparent disconnect between training and a commitment to quality.
“For maybe the first time, we as an industry were willing to sit back and say, ‘You know, maybe the biggest competition we have in our businesses today is poor quality,’” Thompson said. “Coming out of that meeting is when plant certification really gained momentum.”
Other NPCA members shared this sentiment, as the association ramped up its plant certification program, rewriting the quality control manual to strengthen requirements. In order to match the training curriculum with the revised standards, The Fundamentals of Precast Concrete course was also updated. Subject matter updates included a stronger emphasis on quality, resulting in a name change to The Fundamentals of Quality Precast Concrete.
For the first several years, Marshall taught the course at a small hotel approximately 30 miles northwest of Chicago. While the class was very successful, association leaders envisioned an education program even more wide-ranging – a program that would ideally change perceptions on pursuing a career in the precast concrete industry.
Precast University and Master Precasters
Even with an evolving education program, many still considered working in the precast industry equivalent to hitting a dead end. To help eliminate this belief, Gable and other NPCA leaders convened at a 1998 summit in Indianapolis.
“The group talked about how we needed a career path on the plant floor to help us attract people to come to work in and stay in the industry,” Gable said. “At that meeting, the concept of Precast University with a comprehensive training program for plant personnel was born.”
Plans were also outlined for a Master Precaster designation, which would be awarded to any student who completed all the course offerings within the Precast University curriculum.
“The vision there was these people would be a master at the craft of making precast concrete and would be leaders in the plant who would help and teach others,” Gable said.
The newly envisioned program already had a strong foundation in The Fundamentals of Quality Precast Concrete course. However, many questions remained. What would the Precast University training consist of? What, exactly, would it take to earn a “Master Precaster” designation? Marshall pushed for a name change, which happened to fall directly in line with the goal of enabling plant-level personnel to consistently and efficiently produce high-quality precast concrete products.
“I kept saying, ‘No, this is really a production school,’” he said. “We should call it Production Quality School.”
Thus, the course underwent one last name change, becoming Production & Quality School Level I (PQS I). Additionally, because the initial vision for Precast University included beginner, intermediate and leadership levels, more courses were crafted in the years that followed.
Today, 33 production professionals in the industry have earned their Master Precaster designation after successfully completing all the requirements in the Precast University curriculum.
“It took 15 years to develop the whole program,” Gable said. “We went from training a few owners at The Precast Show in years past to training hundreds of plant personnel and owners.”
Building a knowledgeable, sustainable workforce
In the nearly two decades since NPCA educational programming began ramping up, a significant number of workers in the precast concrete industry have benefited from the many high-quality instructors. Carl Buchman, former executive director of the Precast Concrete Association of New York, taught NPCA courses for many years. He noted that educational programming is essential for advancing within the industry.
“Technical education classes enable workers to intelligently read industry publications related to their jobs and allow them to stay current with technology,” Buchman said. “To me, the precast concrete industry is not just a bunch of people in a factory pouring concrete. It’s very technical, and it has to be to create the best product and provide the best service.”
“Raising the bar is an old cliché,” he said. “I hate using it. But we’ve elevated the production level in our industry massively since we started with PQS I. These schools have really been just huge in giving these people an understanding of what to do, how to do it and why they are doing what they’re doing.”
Luckily for the industry, Marshall plans to continue offering his knowledge for the foreseeable future.
“I’m going to be 77 this year, and I’m still doing this because I just love it,” he said. “The guys always ask me when I’m doing the schools, ‘When are you going to quit?’ and I say, ‘When my ashes are floating in the ocean.’”
Training employees to better understand the technical components of their work makes plenty of sense, but what does the industry get back? For Gable, the return on investment is manifold.
“The success of this industry depends on having efficient, competent, quality, consistent and safe production every day in the plant,” he said. “Now, when you do that, you get a better product, you get it made more efficiently and you get people that think and question your processes and figure out how to do things better, faster and with higher quality.”
With any luck, the process also trains skilled employees who will become the instructors of tomorrow, leading the precast concrete industry into an ever-stronger, ever-brighter future.
Mason Nichols is NPCA’s external communication and marketing manager.