On a rainy afternoon in February, fourteen vocational students have gathered in bucolic Parsippany, New Jersey, for what looks like an unconventional Project Runway challenge. Some are clad in khaki Dickies overalls, while others sport T-shirts bearing the word “HVAC.” (That’s “heating, ventilation, and air conditioning,” for the uninitiated.) Steely Dan is playing through the speakers as they bend over their appointed stations, cutting and pinching and welding.
The prompt? Turn a thermoplastic roofing material into an art piece—and, in the immortal words of Tim Gunn, make it work.
Among the most promising creations are an anime-inspired ninja cape and a crown—the handiwork of 23-year-old Ricky Gass, who has been dubbed “El Presidente” by his peers. “I see myself as a king and the rest of us as kings and queens,” Gass says, making a case for his headgear. After some deliberation, the judges conclude the clear winner is a sculptural purse, complete with a flower closure, that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mansur Gavriel store.
Of course, this isn’t Parsons. The students here are part of the new Roofing Academy at GAF, a subsidiary of global industrials company Standard Industries. Their mentor isn’t Gunn, but program director Brian Cornelius. And they’re not competing for prize money—they’re training for a good-paying job.
The academy is in its second week on the day I visited GAF’s 400,000-square-foot headquarters, and the students have been tasked with learning to manipulate thermoplastic olefin—an energy-efficient, waterproof material, known in the trade as TPO, that is installed on low slope commercial roofs. One of the tools in their arsenal is a green welding machine that resembles a sleek lawnmower and blows hot air at more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
After teaching the students how to drill and weld sheets of TPO, Cornelius gives them carte blanche to contort the thermoplastic however they please, using a handheld welder that makes the material pliable. “We have to do a lot of welding where we’re in tight places and bending material in weird ways,” Cornelius says. “So we give them total creative freedom to do an art project, and they make something out of the TPO material. It’s fun for them, but it also has some real meaning because right after that, we transition into welding some of these more difficult details.”
This is the second Roofing Academy in Parsippany, following a handful of pilot programs that GAF hosted across the country back in December. The two-week program is tucked away inside GAF’s Center for the Advancement of Roofing Excellence, otherwise known as CARE, and tailored toward underserved communities like opportunity youth—young people ages 16 to 24 who are not in school or working. This time, the would-be roofers hail from a Job Corps center, which are federally funded vocational training programs that cater to low-income students. But GAF is also courting other populations that might struggle to find lucrative work, from military veterans to the formerly incarcerated.
The impetus behind this crash course in roofing is to bring more workers into the industry—a goal that presumably also has a bearing on the company’s bottom line. In a 2019 survey of roofing contractors, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed expressed frustration over rising labor costs and a shrinking workforce.
“One of the greatest challenges facing the roofing industry today is a shortage of skilled labor,” says David Millstone, the co-CEO of Standard Industries, which is the world’s biggest roofing company, amongst other businesses in industries like real estate and mining. “We saw the Roofing Academy as a way to address that by training new workers and connecting them with contractors.”
Roofing shouldn’t be an especially hard sell, given there’s good money to be made, and Cornelius says solar panel installation, in particular, can be a draw for young people. But there’s a dearth of training options for would-be roofers, he says: Even vocational programs like Job Corps don’t necessarily offer a roofing track.
Multiple students I spoke with—most of whom were on some sort of construction track at Job Corps—said they had never considered a career in roofing prior to the academy. Romaine Harris, 19, moved to New York because he had his sights set on a singing career. But after months of not working, his aunt pushed him to go to trade school, which eventually led him to the Roofing Academy. “I didn’t realize there was such a huge demand,” says Harris. “I would look at roofs and [think], that’s just a roof. When I got here, I literally saw a roof in a different light. I feel like I could do this as a career.”
The academy focuses its efforts on markets like New Jersey where there’s not enough roofing workers to meet high demand. “I felt the pains as a contractor of the shortage of labor in the industry,” Cornelius says. “So this project is near and dear to my heart because I know what the contractors are going through.”
The efficacy of the Roofing Academy also hinges on a low barrier to entry. “The only thing you need to be a successful roofer is the ability to work hard,” Cornelius says. “Anybody can enter it and learn it relatively quickly. You don’t have to have a ton of super expensive tools. And everybody needs a roof—it’s kind of recession-proof.”
Typically, students spend a week on steep slope roofing—think a more traditional roof with shingles—and a week on low slope commercial roofing, including solar panel integration. The idea is for them to be able to walk out of the academy and get a job, Cornelius says, assuming they’re ready to work. (The Job Corps students, for example, may still have other training to finish afterward.) At the end of the program, GAF gives students a tool kit and covers the fee for their OSHA certification. Since GAF has access to a sprawling network of contractors, the company can place students into better jobs—preferably ones that offer benefits, which can be hard to come by in this industry.
“My dream is five years from now, I’d love to see a handful of these students owning their own company and making millions,” Cornelius says. “I can promise you that’s going to happen.”
Some of the students are indeed thinking ahead, mapping out their entrepreneurial ventures. Juell Mollette, the sole woman of the bunch, lays out her 10-year plan. “I want to own my own company,” she says. “My sister got her carpentry license, and she’s working with Disneyland. She’s getting a network from that, so we would definitely launch our own business.” Mollette, 22, is already trained in HVAC, electrical, and roofing, which she says rounds out their expertise. “We’re only missing plumbing, and if one of us gets our plumbing license, we’ll have a full construction business that’s all around perfect,” she says.
Gass, too, has lofty ambitions to strike out on his own after he hones his skills in the field. “My goal is to build foster homes all over the world,” he says. “It’s going to be a complex business with a lot of different things attached to it—but for the reason of helping kids have the opportunity to grow and get a fair chance at life.”