What do you do if you run a small granite shed and it is nearly impossible for you to find skilled employees? If you are Shelley Cochran, vice president of Cochran’s Inc., you run a training course, not just for your company, but for the entire industry.
“We’re trying to create a workforce. It just isn’t there. If we don’t get young people interested in the stone trades soon, we will be in serious trouble,” Cochran said.
To help her company and the granite industry find workers, starting Feb. 21 and running to April 11, Cochran’s Inc. is running the Cochran School of Rock, an eight-week, weekly course titled, “Introduction to Basic Monumental Drafting.”
At the completion of the course, the student will be able to meet the union standards of an apprentice-level monumental draftsman, Cochran said.
The timing of the course matches the hiring cycle at the sheds, she said, because spring is when the granite industry hires most if its employees.
In an average year, there are five to 10 openings for entry-level granite workers, according to Matt Peake, business agent for the Granite Cutters Association in Barre, which represents 350 union granite workers.
“It depends on the economy and how many workers retire, but the average is five to six openings in the spring and another four or five throughout the rest of the year,” Peake said.
The cost to attend the School Of Rock is $550 for anyone over 18 and $400 for high school students. Employers sending more than one employee will receive discounts, and scholarships are available through the state’s Workforce Innovations Opportunity Act program. Registrations are being accepted right up to the first day of the course or when the course is filled, whichever comes first.
The hands-on course includes an introduction to the granite industry, CAD (computer-aided design), an in-depth study of monumental lettering, instruction on creating proof layouts and on how to modify stock designs, and a study of the drafting skills needed for digitizing (creating custom designs from photos). Each student will create two involved layouts using skills they have learned.
“Upon completion, the student will receive a certificate in introduction to basic monumental dating,” Cochran said.
Much of the course will be taught by Peter Burke, a longtime employee at Cochran’s Inc. who has 40 years of experience in the industry. He began as a hand draftsman.
Cochran and her mother, Diane Cochran, run the only female-owned granite shed in central Vermont. Their twelve-employee company, like many of the granite companies in the area, is having a difficult time finding skilled workers. The granite story is similar to what is happening to a variety of industries in Vermont, from factory work to construction trades to trucking companies: the current workforce is aging and there are not enough young workers available.
Part of the problem, according the Cochran, is the fact that there are no stone-trades training centers in Vermont. Central Vermont Career Center, housed on the Spaulding High School campus, used to run a stone-trades program but halted it more than 20 years ago, not due to lack of interest, according to Peake, but because there were not enough jobs available for the graduates.
Penny Chamberlin, director/principal of CVCC, said reinstating a stone-trades program is not likely, at least not anytime soon, for a variety of reasons, including money, space and interest.
Space may be the biggest factor, as the building that used to house the stone-trades center is now the very successful building-trades center. In addition, there is no money in the current budget for a stone-trades program, and there may not be enough jobs available on a yearly basis to justify it.
“We would be happy, however, to arrange job shadowing in the granite industry,” she said. Any company interested can contact her office.
Cochran said that for too many years blue-collar jobs were “looked down on” by high school students and their guidance councilors. The low perception of the value of a blue-collar job, at least by the staff at various high schools in the region, is better now than it was a few years ago, but many students still scoff at the notion that stone trades is a good career path, she said.
“What they don’t realize is a granite worker starts at $16 an hour and after two years can make as much as $23.90 an hour plus full benefits including health care and retirement,” Cochran said.
Chamberlin agreed. “If you mention the granite industry or manufacturing, what some students see is a dusty, dirty building. What they don’t realize are there are many high-tech, high-end jobs in these industries.”
The Barre granite industry generates $100 million in annual revenues, according to Doug Grahn, executive director of The Barre Granite Association.
Cochran’s Monuments isn’t new to teaching skills needed in the granite trades. In the fall, the company offers a variety of courses for employees of other granite companies.
“Our industry can only grow by sharing knowledge. We want to help the community of monument builders to improve. Education is vital in keeping our craft alive,” Cochran said.