• Edgar Sanchez is chief operations officer of Modern Method Gunite, a gunite and pebble interior subcontractor based in Houston, Texas. He serves as chairman of the National Plasterers Council.

    Credit: Robert Rogers

    Edgar Sanchez is chief operations officer of Modern Method Gunite, a gunite and pebble interior subcontractor based in Houston, Texas. He serves as chairman of the National Plasterers Council.

Last year, out of necessity, we tried something new in our company, and developed an in-house training program teaching people how to apply pebble.

We’ve been based in Houston for more than 30 years and wanted to expand our market to Austin, San Antonio and central Texas. If we were going to do that, we needed two more crews, whereas over the past 10 years we’d been growing one crew at a time per year.

On top of that, we had lost a crew’s worth of people, who had decided to work up north, where they pay more. That’s something every company faces, so we knew it would happen someday.

We wanted to start our own training program because we don’t hire anyone who has learned how to plaster from outside. When we first started applying pebble, we trained people from our gunite crews. That’s how we’ve grown it all along. Now we needed to do it at a faster pace. We decided to start from the ground up and take people who didn’t know anything about plastering and teach them.

The traditional method of teaching is to bring the new person into the pool with a trainer, have them do a small portion of the surface, then leave the rest to experienced workers. So they get very limited exposure. This usually happens before the season, when there aren’t a lot of pools to train on.

So we decided to build a dedicated training area at our offices. Our company used to sell materials and different types of aggregates, so in the back of our yard we had four 20-by-20 bins, which were three-sided, for storing material. We weren’t using them anymore, so we closed off the fourth wall of each and converted them into two pools and two spas for training. One pool had no detail — it was just walls and floors — but the other had a lot of detail, such as benches and sun shelves. We had a round spa, which is easier to plaster, and then a square one.

Between the four units, we had jet fittings, light niches, split main drains and a channel drain, so the students could learn how to finish around different components.

We also put in different types of tile, because each kind of veneer presents its own set of challenges. For example, when you wash around a ceramic tile line, it’s going to create more runoff water than stone.

To recruit trainees, we needed to go outside our regular pool of talent. So we went to some of the high schools in the area and approached graduating seniors who maybe weren’t going to college.

At the beginning of each class, we’d have eight candidates who’d been screened through an interview process. They’d start in a classroom setting, so we weren’t investing too much at first. We showed them the different types of trowels and let the students touch, feel, move and bend the tools. They would watch videos of our guys working and view lots of pictures. For inspiration, we would show them images of gorgeous pools and say, “This is what you’re going to be doing.”

The first couple days, we would have them walk laps around our yard, wearing the spikes that we walk on inside the pools. By having them do laps, we were teaching them to pick up their feet while they walk. Our yard has a lot of sand in it from our gunite business. So as they were doing a full lap we would tell them to look behind them, and they could see who was dragging their feet, which is a big no-no in the plaster business.

If they showed up the next day, we would have them trowel sand. So they were bent over, actually plastering like they would a floor for a couple of hours at a time. And in between those hours, we would do laps. We treated it like boot camp. We were trying to weed people out.

We’d get some trainees who didn’t come back, and a few who we instantly knew, “Hey, this isn’t for you.” Maybe the body type just wasn’t right. There are actually ideal types. If a guy looks like Mr. Muscle Man, he’s probably better off as a mixer than a spa finisher, who has to work in very tight areas. If they were promising but we didn’t think they were the right fit to be a finisher, we might send them to another division. We’d get to understand their characters. There are people whose personality lends itself more to demolition, so we might send them to a demo crew.

After that first week as a beginner, they would go into live action in a regular pool. By this point, we’d have five guys left, so we’d send one out with each of our crews so they could see real action for about a week. They wouldn’t count as part of the crew — they’d each work as an extra hand.

Then we would bring them back, and they’d go through the intermediate stage and spend a week there, learning to work on the more complicated pool and the spas. After the intermediate portion, we would have them work on one pool out in the field, then bring them back later in the day to work in our training facility. That would go on for almost a month. They could work through the complete process of finishing a pool two times a day, once in a controlled environment. In the traditional training method, they only would have been able to trowel floors for that first month or two. With our method, they were already 11 pools in. They weren’t complete finishers, and they weren’t doing great yet, but they were so much further advanced than they would have been using the typical training methods.

If we didn’t think someone was ready to move on at a certain stage, they could take the week over again.

The guys who liked it and wanted to stay would bring in two or three friends. So we could increase the talent pool more.

We quickly discovered that we were building a pretty contagious environment: The guys already working with us wanted a crack at the training pools to see if they could do what these kids were doing. A lot of people on our crews had never done spas — they’d just done benches and steps. So we thought, if it works for the new guys, then it can work for the intermediate guys, too. So we built spas for them to train on. And it gave them a chance to advance themselves, too.