By Heather Bremer
In 2016, Alan Pritchard became self-aware.
Like a machine gaining artificial intelligence and evolving to become more than just its defined processes, Pritchard began to see his role at Smith-Midland Corp. in Midland, Va., in a new light.
He soon realized how much he didn’t know that he didn’t know.
Pritchard credits NPCA’s Master Precaster program in leading to this revelation.
Pritchard is one of the 250 men and women to graduate from the program since its founding in 2012. As the first of 11 Smith-Midland employees to seek certification as a Master Precaster, he saw immediate benefits in the precast-specific training and the opportunity to discuss common issues with others in the industry.
But it was the leadership course that opened his eyes to how his approach affected other people and how interacting with different people required different approaches. Pritchard was able to act on those innovative ideas as soon as he returned to the plant.
“I’m still practicing and trying to get better,” Pritchard said. “It’s just one of those things that I wasn’t aware that I needed to get better until I went through some of the classes.”
As the plant manager at Smith-Midland, Pritchard now mentors others seeking to pursue the golden hardhat presented to Master Precaster graduates. When they return to the Midland plant, Master Precasters coach workers on tasks such as special finishes or repairs if a product happens to get damaged. They also do cost analysis and problem-solving, utilizing skills they learned throughout the program.
“They’ve been sort of the go-to resource,” Pritchard said. “Other people have been able to reach out to them if they need anything, specifically technical recommendations.”
This level of knowledge is invaluable to an operation.
At Western Precast Concrete Inc. in El Paso, Texas, there are six Master Precasters on staff, each with a heightened awareness of the technical basis for manufacturing quality precast concrete.
“After graduating, we are able to see that each of these individuals with additional training and education understands every aspect of producing quality precast concrete products,” said Leo Feuerstein, Western’s secretary treasurer, CFO and operations manager. “These individuals have been designated as staff members who now understand mix design, reinforcement guidelines, form use care and placement, stripping, inventory placement, pre-pour and post-pour procedures, lifting procedures and myriad of other technical details.”
In addition to the technical and production knowledge gained through the Master Precaster program, graduates also learn to understand plant safety, how to handle personnel issues and how to deal with human resources issues.
Feuerstein said staff members who obtain the designation bring a greater level of care and quality to their departments. He cited an example of a quality control director who grew in his ability to understand mix design and fine-tuned Western’s batching operation.
“Perfecting our use of raw materials to produce a much more cost-effective batch while still meeting the strength requirements for each particular job is invaluable for both us and our customers,” Feuerstein said.
Western’s internal training includes knowing the proper use of stinger vibration, but a production manager who learned the “why” of the process through the Master Precaster courses not only helped that individual but led to a process change that resulted in an improved finish and a better final product.
“The simple process of not dragging the stinger but properly inserting and removing it was a direct result of Master Precaster training,” Feuerstein said.
Feuerstein believes every NPCA Producer member should get as many staff members educated through the Master Precaster program as possible. In the highly demanding and technically specific environment of precast concrete, an educated staff that understands what’s required of them only helps business.
Employees who are encouraged to enter the program find a personal level of knowledge benefits them. Pritchard said employees also appreciate knowing the company sees potential in them and is willing to put time and money into improving their skills and knowledge while making them better at their jobs.
“You sort of become more engaged just because you’ve been supported by the company, and we can give back at that point,” Pritchard said.
Feuerstein said the program cost is affordable for producers, especially when compared to the typical cost of investing in an employee’s career.
“We should remember that the actual staff member has to put forth the investment of time and work to pass each class,” Feuerstein said. “I have that when the process is over, the production staff walks a little prouder with the satisfaction of being recognized for their efforts.”
Heather Bremer is the NPCA communications manager.