Two years ago, Lowe’s went on a “journey” to make itself a more purpose-driven organization, says Mike Mitchell, director of trade skills at the home-improvement company. That organizational self-reflection included considerations of how current shortages in the skilled-trade workforce would impact its future–and that of its employees.
“We talked to our associates and a lot said they were aware they could make a pretty lucrative, meaningful living in the skilled trades, but they just had never gotten started. So that set off a lightbulb,” Mitchell says.
Lowe’s partnered with adult-education company Guild Education to create Track to the Trades. The program connects employees with up to $2,500 in tuition assistance for online pre-apprenticeship training in carpentry, HVAC, electrical, plumbing or appliance repair. Like it does with its other partnerships, Guild Education will provide academic coaching and support to students. The coursework is self-paced, typically taking six to 10 months to complete, Mitchell says. Lowe’s will then place participants in apprenticeships at local companies that participate in its national contractor network to complete their certification and kickstart their career in the trades.
“We have a full-service contractor network in every market in the country, from flooring to countertops to HVAC. These local contractors are really feeling the labor shortage,” Mitchell says. He notes that the company is doing back-end succession-planning for employees who want to stay on with the company instead of going right into a full-time apprenticeship.
Guild Education has previously worked with partners on apprenticeship programs–such as one that enabled school-district paraprofessionals to earn a teaching degree and then move into student-teaching positions–but this is its first foray into trade apprenticeships, says Rachel Carlson, CEO of Guild Education.
“It’s a really beautiful public-private partnership that few companies could do to the scale needed, but Lowe’s can with its 260,000-employee footprint around the U.S.,” Carlson says.
While upskilling is a major component, recruitment and retention are also in Lowe’s sights, Mitchell says. Already, recent new hires have reported applying to the company because of the program, for which part- and full-time employees are eligible after six months on the job.
“We really see this as a true employee-value proposition: We want to train you and we want to show you how much our business leaders are willing to support you,” Mitchell says.
The program rolled out with 140 inaugural students in four pilot cities in March and is expected to launch nationwide later this year.
As the company has introduced Track to the Trades to its employees and to prospective candidates at job fairs, Mitchell says, the most common refrain heard has been, “Is this real?”
“A lot of people think it’s too good to be true,” he says. “Once we started explaining how Lowe’s benefits from an employee-value proposition standpoint, from a recruitment piece and just how much we want to support our own employees, there’s more understanding and excitement–and we’re going to continue to build on that momentum.”
Since the program was announced earlier this year, Carlson says, Guild Education has been contacted by 30 skilled-trade companies interested in using Track to the Trades as a model for their own upskilling projects–suggesting the partners may have hit the nail on the head when it comes to innovating the skilled-trades industry.