The Future of the Field: From the Navy to the shop, how one young pro is recruiting the next generation

Shon Smith, 40, ACI Mechanical, Ames, IA

This is the fourth article in our series on young professionals in construction. Read the first three here, here and here.

As we continue our Future of the Field series, common themes are emerging among young industry professionals. Among them, a desire for mentorship — but don’t confuse that with the need for hand-holding.

For the fourth article in the series, we talked with Shon Smith, 40, who entered the construction industry as a sheet metal fabricator following four years with the U.S. Navy, stationed at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong. Smith has sought out mentors to learn more about the industry and help him chart a career path. Now, he’s helping bring the next generation into the field by recruiting students from Iowa high schools into the trades.

Shon Smith

We talked with Smith, a prefabrication manager at ACI Mechanical in Ames, IA, and who was the inaugural winner of the Associated Builders and Contractors Young Professional of the Year Award in 2015, about how he got into construction, his recruiting work and what the industry could be doing better to attract and retain young professionals.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you get into the construction industry?

SMITH: I was in the military for four years, and when I got out I was looking for something that gave me an opportunity to use my hands, to see something complete at the end of the day. My cousin was working for a mechanical contractor here locally, and he said, "You need to come try this out." Once I understood what it was, I applied, got on board and here I am.

That was your first job in the industry?

SMITH: Yes, it was. I was a sheet metal fabricator, building ductwork and fittings. It was before automation, so everything was still laid out by hand. You had to learn and understand the process.

What’s your role today?

SMITH: I’ve moved up quite a bit. I’m now the prefabrication manager. I work with our estimators, project managers and engineers. I look at the projects we’re bidding on, been awarded or getting ready to design, and I help determine what we’re going to prefabricate in our shops before we put people on the job sites. I work with them to get everything coordinated, detailed out, drawn, fabricated, built and installed.

Considering that you started in the industry without previous construction experience, what role has mentoring played for you?

SMITH: I went through the ABC’s apprenticeship program, and not only did you have those instructors all four years of your apprenticeship, but you also had people a year or two ahead of you and journeymen that had been through the program, and they acted in that mentor role. I’ve tried to have a mentor inside my company that I work with a couple of times a month on different issues. And I also have a mentor working for a different contractor in a different field within the industry. We’re a mechanical contractor and my mentor outside of the company is with an electrical contractor. We meet once every one or two months. It’s an opportunity for me to bounce ideas off him and try to get some input from him that I can use to help me grow in my role.

How did you find that mentor?

SMITH: After going through the ABC Iowa Emerging Leaders program [in 2014] and understanding the importance that a mentor can play, especially as you move through your career, I thought that if I’m going to keep moving, I’ve got to get somebody that I can put in my corner that helps me grow and see the opportunities that are in front of me. I met him through ABC. He’s an ABC member and contractor and he served on the board. It’s a great avenue to meet people like that.

An now you’re now helping to recruit high school students in the construction trades through ACI and ABC?

SMITH: We’ve made a big push in the last three and a half years to get out to the high schools. We want to change the perception of construction and show these high school kids that opportunities exist in the industry. When we show them what they could be doing if they worked for a company like ACI or another contractor — the opportunities, the money that can be made, the benefits that are there — you get a lot of questions from them. It’s an eye-opening experience. For the most part, the perception is that construction is a last resort. When really, construction is probably a more viable option for most high school kids than going to a four-year school and trying to earn a degree.

How so?

SMITH: In a lot of situations, coming out of school at 18, these kids will go right into an apprenticeship program, and they are guaranteed to make a percentage of the journeyman rate for whatever trade they’re going into.

For example, if somebody comes in as a plumber, for each of the four years of their apprenticeship, they will make a percentage of what the journeyman rate is for that state, for that company. At the end of four years, that apprenticeship program cost of tuition is typically paid for by the contractor. There’s no out-of-pocket cost to the apprentices. Most of the time they will come out of there making $22 to $24 per hour, which is $45,000 to $50,000 per year, with no student debt. That’s just the starting point. If they want to become a foreman or a team leader or a superintendent, they can be making $60,000 to $90,000 a year.

We try to let the students understand that the opportunity is there. It’s a matter of wanting it, being willing to put forth the effort, looking at it in a different light. It’s changing the perception of the construction industry.

What do you think the industry could be doing better to make this potential more apparent?

SMITH: As an industry, we must be willing to change how we are viewed by everybody else. Construction workers can sometimes have a bad connotation — people see them and think dirty, foul-mouthed, not concerned about safety. And that’s not the case at all. Safety is a priority, how employees present themselves, their work ethic, those are all important attributes of construction companies and professionals. For us to change the perception, the industry has to say, "OK, we’re going to work to change that perception."

How has your military experience impacted your day-to-day leadership in business?

SMITH: Going through the military helped in understanding chain of command and attention to detail. I try to carry that with me in my current job. A lot of it is making sure that with everything I have a hand in, that attention to detail is there, whether it’s an estimator or an engineer or someone in the field. And understanding the organization so whether something is coming from the top down or from the bottom up, it goes through the chain of command correctly so communication isn’t lost.

What advice do you have for other young professionals about managing up (and down) like that?

SMITH: To succeed in this industry, there are four things a person should look at, and in this order: The first one in just effort. Being willing to show you’re willing to learn and try something new. The second is accuracy. Once you’ve got that effort, be accurate in what you do. Get as much information as you can. The third is speed. We’ve got good effort; we’ve got good accuracy. Now, let’s be efficient at it, let’s be productive. Then, finally, there’s craftsmanship. Rolling yourself into what you’ve done. Showing that pride of craftsmanship is something that few people do, but if you can get through those first three steps, you can use that craftsmanship to set everybody’s perceptions of you.

Where do you see yourself, career-wise, in 10 years?

SMITH: Still growing, still learning. I’ve been fortunate to move up in the ranks pretty quickly. I’ve been able to move up the ladder and take on new challenges, and that’s what I want to keep doing. I enjoy leading people, and I want to continue to do that, to take on more and to fit into a role in the company that’s beneficial, that brings other people into leadership roles. 

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