It was more like a new employee orientation than a field trip. Forty students from Belaire High School spent Wednesday morning in a chilly workshop in St. Gabriel learning the ins and outs of what it takes to work at Delta Tech Service.
The students, all juniors and seniors, sat quietly through a long presentation by representatives of the industrial service company. Principal Roy Walker, however, didn’t like what he was seeing. About halfway through, Walker spoke up and everyone heard him.
“I need to see you all with your heads up and more determined,” boomed Walker. “Because you’ve been given an opportunity that a lot of other kids haven’t. As a matter of fact, a slew of kids in the district, even at Belaire, are not here. So it’s a blessing that you are here today. Because if you want to work at a plant, he’s giving it to you.”
The “he” Walker is referring to is Gary Stewart, vice president of Delta Tech Service, a subsidiary of ERS Building Maintenance Inc.
On Sept. 14, Stewart spent a day at Belaire shadowing Walker, among 25 business and community leaders participating in the Principal for A Day initiative organized by the nonprofit Volunteers in Public Schools.
It was a memorable day for Stewart, a 1981 graduate of the Baton Rouge public high school and former quarterback for the Bengals. Stewart came away impressed with how Walker handled the demanding job, saying he was exhausted just watching him.
On Nov. 5, Stewart returned the favor and gave the veteran principal a clinic in his business, which focuses largely on periodic cleaning of refineries and plants.
“My head was hurting,” recalled Walker, smiling.
Walker said he was also impressed by the stakes for Delta Tech employees out in the field.
“If you get it wrong, that can cost you your job,” he said.
Walker said the day at Delta Tech made him think again about what he can do to help.
“It lets me know as a principal that I need to meet kids where they are,” he said. “Start getting more buy-in and more feedback from the kids, so we can prepare them to become that thing they want to be.”
On Wednesday, Walker brought a busload of students to see what he’d seen.
Stewart was waiting for him, dressed in Bengal blue and orange. Walker had a surprise of his own. He opened up his black coat to reveal a Delta Tech uniform.
Delta Tech’s offices, located appropriately enough on Delta Drive, were nearly empty Wednesday. Their employees, all but a handful, were away working at plants.
“This is our busy season,” explained Stewart.
The Belaire High students on Wednesday heard mostly from Les Ray, manager for the St. Gabriel location.
“What do we do at Delta Tech?” Ray asked. “We do chemical cleaning and decontamination. That’s the two things that we do.”
Donnie Adams, the welding instructor at Belaire, watched from the back, occasionally chiming in. When Ray posed a question, Adams interjected.
“If you can’t get this right, I’m going to put you on the bus right now and we’re going home,” Adams threatened half-jokingly.
Ray told the students he has job openings now: “I could use 10 qualified people today. Two weeks from now I could use another 10.”
At the same time, he said Delta Tech is looking for longevity. An employee-owned company, formed in 1969 in southern California, Delta Tech counts many veteran employees.
“This is a place where people come to stay,” Ray said. “If you’re looking for a job to make you a little bit of money and then you’re going to move on down the road, maybe we’re not the best option for you.”
Pat Williams, 19 and a senior at Belaire, said he’s still weighing whether to start working immediately after he graduates in May or to continue studying welding at Baton Rouge Community College. He said he loves to work with his hands and so does most of his family.
“In my family, I have pretty much everyone: an electrician, carpenter, pipe fitter, people doing air conditioning,” he explained.
Darius Chambers, 17, a junior, said he’s eager to get out and start working.
“I’m just waiting until I’m 18,” Chambers said. “I got some experience, but I need some more experience.”
Chambers said several things that Stewart and Ray said Wednesday resonated with him.
“The less you put in, the less you get out. The more you put in, the more you get out,” Chambers gave as an example.
Stewart talked about his own high school experience. Now bald, he showed a picture of himself in a football uniform with a big shock of red hair.
As his senior season was coming to a close, he had several scholarship offers but still held hope of playing at LSU. Then a running play went awry.
“They hit the hole and made a crowbar out of my arm,” he said. “I’m a quarterback. Broke my arm in two places.”
Soon after his injury, he learned that a potential LSU scholarship was now going to someone else.
“That day, my determination changed,” he recalled. “I’m going to go to school, and I’m going to do something with my life.”
Within sight of Delta Tech is the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women and nearby on La. 74 is the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. Stewart pointed to them to make a point.
“We got two prisons right at the end of my street,” Stewart observed. “We do these things to avoid those things. And I am telling you, the life that these guys have here is because of an opportunity like this.”