An HVAC company’s plans for its own vocational school at its Richmond home base are closer to becoming reality.
Alexandria-based Michael & Son has secured a special-use permit from the City of Richmond to convert the six-story former Wyeth plant tower at 1407 Cummings Drive into dormitories for students enrolled in its trade school.
The school, which will train future Michael & Son employees in plumbing, electrical, and heating and air conditioning repair, will also be housed in the 273,000-square-foot facility the company purchased in 2012. Work on the school is nearly complete, and the first class of enrollees is set to start in the next few weeks, said Basim Mansour, Michael & Son president.
“We’re probably not going to be fully running for another four to six months, but when the school is finished, it’s going to be the most state-of-the-art trade school in the nation,” Mansour said. “We’re going to be able to create and build incredible, talented people that we can farm just for our use.
“The reality is that nobody’s going into the trade anymore,” he said. “What we need as a company is, first, great people, and then second, tradespeople. It’s easier to find good people who don’t know the trade, so we’re going to take those good people and teach them the trade.”
Mansour said the school has about a half dozen students signed up for the first program, which will initially offer only plumbing, heating and A/C training. Graduates of the 12-week program, which is followed by six weeks of field work, would then be farmed out to one of Michael & Son’s seven offices in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Students enrolled in the school from throughout the country will be housed in the tower, which will be converted over the next six to eight months into 32 dorm units and eight apartments totaling 74 beds. Mansour said marketing for the school is underway, targeting prospective students in each of Michael & Son’s markets and other source pools such as recently retired military.
“We’re looking for quality and not quantity,” he said. “I spent seven figures building this school because I want to get the right people.”
Mansour purchased the former Wyeth plant, highly visible along Interstate 95 east of The Diamond, in 2012 for $1.9 million and invested an additional $1 million in updating the building to create what is now called the Michael & Son Center, consisting of a 15,000-square-foot central warehouse and distribution facility and a 10,000-square-foot call center.
The school occupies another 19,000 square feet in a bay of the main warehouse building. The rest of the 185,000-square-foot facility is leased to other warehouse and distribution users, including ToolBank, a supplier for groups like Habitat for Humanity; Rexel USA, an electrical supply company; and outsourcing firm Minacs, which opened a 40,000-square-foot call center in the building a year ago. Remaining space in the facility is listed for lease.
The tower, which totals 20,000 square feet, will consist of 32 two-bedroom dorm units on the first four floors and eight apartments on the two floors – three one-bedrooms and one two-bedroom, according to plans submitted to the city. The building’s red-paneled exterior would not be changed.
A required special-use permit received city council approval on Monday, and Mansour said he will now proceed with securing permitting after spending about $250,000 on asbestos abatement.
Mansour put the overall cost of converting the tower at just under $1 million. Richmond-based ColonialWebb is the contractor on the project, and Walter Parks Architects is designing the units. Dagenhart Sprinkler Co. is also involved in the project.
Once fully operational, the school will have certified instructors onsite and serve a maximum of 40 students per 12-week session. Classrooms will replicate a home with plumbing exposed, home remodeling and construction projects and contain full-scale HVAC systems and electrical wiring setups.
Mansour said students will be paid a stipend to attend classes – an investment by the company that he said would pay off in the long term.
“It’s about $300 a week for them to attend class, but keep in mind, most trade schools are (charging) $20,000 to go to school,” he said. “We’re actually reversing the roles a little bit.”
Established in 1976, Michael & Son currently employs about 900 people among its offices in Alexandria, Charlottesville, Norfolk, Raleigh-Durham, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Its Richmond call center and corporate warehouse employs between 150 and 180 workers.