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Apprenticeships Eye Creating Lifetime Craftspeople

Fri November 20, 2009 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

A dynamic apprenticeship program will not by itself save the U.S. construction industry from a looming shortage of skilled labor, but it is “one of the pieces of the puzzle” to stabilizing the labor situation, say industry leaders.

Unions, contractors and associations operate apprenticeship programs mostly to teach trade skills. However, they also hope the programs will swell the ranks of craftspeople and retain their workplace allegiance for a lifetime. The ultimate goal of every apprenticeship program sponsor in the country is to boost both the quality and quantity of trained construction laborers. How they pursue this common objective differs in a variety of ways.

To produce skilled workers in such fields as carpentry, cement masonry and construction laborer, contractors in the Master Builders’ Association of Western Pennsylvania mostly work through trade unions. It is an association that goes back a long ways: the Master Builders’ Association — a founding member of Associated General Contractors — and the carpenters union both date from the 1880s.

The success of apprenticeship programs in Pittsburgh is evident in the new $13 million training center of the Carpenters Joint Apprenticeship and Training Program. Ground was broken a year ago for the center, which sits adjacent to the carpenters’ headquarters. The 93,000-sq-ft. facility is state of the art, according to Jon O’Brien, MBA’s director of communications.

“Anything you can think of that will enhance training they have incorporated into the building.”

The four-year apprenticeship training includes 144 hours of annual classroom work and at least 4,000 hours of on-the-job training over four years. If an apprentice completes the rigorous instruction and passes the muster of his supervisors, a designation of journeyman carpenter is his reward.

In addition, the certificate of carpentry apprenticeship is transferable to the Community College of Allegheny County for 30 credits, which can be applied toward an associate degree in building construction estimation or supervision.

Approximately 1,000 students enroll each year in carpenter and laborer apprenticeship programs. O’Brien said he is pleased to see more qualified people being attracted to the programs, which he attributes to current economic conditions.

“Jobs are hard to come by and a lot of young people are looking toward the trades,” he said. “We are looking at the quality of the applicants going off the charts, many of them just out of college.”

He said the typical applicant to the program used to be 28 to 29 years of age. Now people entering the program are in the 25-year-old range.

“I think they will be in for the long term, too. Right around the mid-20s a lot of young people are starting families. They want benefits and the unions are a viable option.”

Still, local contractors realize that the long-term trend for the industry labor pool is not good, with more skilled people retiring than are entering the trades. To address the problem, some of the unions in western Pennsylvania are changing pension rules. It used to be that working 30 years or reaching age 55 was sufficient tenure to earn 100 percent pension benefits. Last year, the figures were adjusted to 35 years or age 62.

“This is one way they tackle the issue,” O’Brien said. “I think it is a pretty nice little Band-Aid. Hopefully, it will give young people an opportunity to assume leadership on the job site.”

Landau Building Company, a Pittsburgh-area fixture in the contracting industry for more than a century, is an active participant in the Master Builders’ Association apprenticeship effort. Carpentry and laborer apprentices are employed by Landau, as well as co-op students from area schools including the University of Pittsburgh.

“We definitely see the value of the apprenticeship programs,” said Jen Landau, a project manager at the company and a member of the MBA Young Constructors Committee. “We have a lot of apprentices who have spent all four years working for Landau and become journeymen. We have one right now who is going through superintendent training.”

Landau said apprentices are welcomed into the workplace by their more established peers in the workforce, as well as by management.

“There has been talk in the past how the older generation of carpenters hasn’t been cooperative, saying ’This guy just wants to take my job.’ But I have never seen that personally and I believe the more experienced carpenters really embrace the young tradesmen.”

Sometimes apprentice programs are farmed out to community college campuses, which usually is a good fit. But not always. In LaCrosse, Wis., a carpenters program operated for years by Western Technical College was taken back by the local carpenters union. Class schedules were the problem.

“They said their employers wanted training in what they call block schedules,” said Bill Brendel, the school’s dean of agriculture, apprenticeship and technology. The school offered classroom work for the apprentices one day every other week for a total of 72 hours per semester.

“Employers said they preferred to lose an employee for a week at a time rather than to pull them out every other Monday or something.”

Most of the school’s carpenter apprentices were union-sponsored. The school offers both union and non-union training in some trades, though the classes are virtually identical as required by the state’s Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards.

“It is a workable situation,” Brendel said of the union/non-union classes, which are common across the country. “Unions have no problem bringing in non-union students. There actually is more pushback from non-union employers for having to send their employees to a union hall. They see the classes as an opportunity for a union to cherry-pick students. It is kind of an uneasy situation in some respects.”

At a new craft teaching institution in Oregon, cooperative relationships range beyond the union status of students. The Northwest College of Construction was formed four years ago from the vision of college President Dan Graham.

Graham had been workforce manager of the Columbia, Ore., chapter of the AGC for 10 years when he proposed that contractor associations come together to establish a college that could, in the words of its mission statement, “promote life-long learning by delivering craft, technical, supervisory and management education to the construction industry.”

The college’s founding organizations are the Pacific Northwest chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, the Homebuilders Association of Metropolitan Portland, the National Utility Contractors Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington, and the Columbia AGC chapter. They formed a non-profit, privately funded organization and purchased and remodeled a 40-year-old facility on Holman Street in Portland.

“These trade associations often are competing,” Graham said, “but the reality is they all recognize no one is making much money in education. So it was easier to decide we could pool our resources and create some economies of scale and provide a better product. That logic really did win folks over.”

The president said the college has about 1,600 enrollments — “we count enrollments, not bodies, an important distinction” — in this fourth school year of its existence. He is optimistic about the future.

“I think we are going to make it,” Graham said. “We are still scrapping and of course in this economy everyone has their fingers crossed. I was just talking to some contractors that are really sweating bullets. By and large, contractors are our customers so we are watching the economy closely — the construction industry in particular, which as you know is pretty rough right now.”

The school operates eight merit apprentice programs, but anyone is welcome to enroll and union members quite often do. Laborer and heavy equipment apprenticeship classes are “steaming along quite nicely,” Graham said, possibly because public funding is at present flowing most heavily into highway and bridge construction projects. Some apprenticeship programs, such as the one serving tile setters, are under-enrolled because of minimal work for residential construction contractors, which are “just getting hammered” by the economy, Graham said.

Like similar institutions across the country — actually, Graham is not aware of any others configured quite like NCWW — the college has twin goals of upgrading skill levels in the industry and swelling the ranks of skilled workers. Graham said the sponsoring associations support both efforts.

“We were sponsored by the industry locally for the training, but they really want us to spend a fair amount of our energy in recruiting. We are always in a recruitment mode. We have been watching the demographics of our industry for 10 years. We know what the average age of journeymen tradespeople are. The pool is pretty old and we know we are going to have to get new people in the industry.

“There are a lot of people on the bench right now,” Graham said of layoffs that mark the economic times, “and that makes it a challenge to bring new people in. Those laid off will go back to work before we can hire new people. But we are seeing apprentices being hired right now and apprenticeship enrollment is at an all-time high.”

One of the challenges facing the administration is to identify serious candidates for apprentice training as opposed to those who in the economic downturn are just biding their time at an employer’s expense.

“Some are interested in a career in construction but then decide it isn’t what they had in mind. There is always a weeding out,” the president said. “Just this morning I was thinking about how to get people to get to that decision sooner rather than later. Apprentices are all paid for by employers, so it is real easy just to show up and let someone else pay the bill.”

Local chapters of Associated Builders and Contractors frequently partner with community colleges for apprenticeship classes, said Todd Staub, ABC’s director of craft training.

“What we are focusing on in the chapters is development of a lifelong career path for tradespeople. Skills training is a part of that.”

Staub is enthusiastic about a second educational track being offered employers — craft training. In this program, students receive the identical classroom instruction and hands-on training as apprentices but sometimes for shorter duration. Craft training targets companies that want a way to raise the formal skill level of their employees without jumping through the hoops required by formal apprenticeship agreements. It appeals to contractors who are not working on public sector projects with obligatory apprenticeship contractual language.

A curriculum, certified instruction and accreditation for craft training are provided by the 13-year-old National Center for Construction Education and Research, which is affiliated with the University of Florida. The not-for-profit foundation’s accreditation gives a certified graduate a portable credential.

“Upon graduation,” said Staub, “a person has third-party accreditation he can carry throughout his career that says, ’I have been trained to do this.’ We are looking for the lifelong learner in this industry and if we have something to engage these people from the beginning, if we can attract the right people into the industry, they will develop and stay in the industry for their entire career. Overall, we look at it as one of the pieces of the puzzle” in meeting the looming worker shortage.

ABC gives craft training participants an extra incentive by once a year bringing together the top students from each center in the country in a national craft skills championship. In two days of competition, students vie for cash and tool prizes. Some 130 students are expected to compete in about a dozen crafts at ABC’s convention in San Diego, Calif., in February.

Staub said the industry must offer today’s young people real choices in making and pursuing career decisions.

“We are dealing today with people who want options, who want information to make an informed decision. Apprenticeship and craft training are two of those options.” CEG

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