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Hurdles on Path to Apprenticeship

July 27, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
 
Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer joined officials of UA Plumbers Local 1 in Long Island City on July 5 where they distributed plumber apprenticeship applications to over 1,000 men and women. At a time when the national and city economy, especially for workers without advanced college degrees, remains challenging, the opportunity for new workers to learn a new skill and earn decent wages is welcome news.

Mr. Van Bramer comes from a proud tradition of organized labor, as his father was a pressman for the New York Times for 35 years as a member of The Printers’ and Pressman Union’s, Local 2, and his mother was a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union at Pathmark and Key Foods. Also, his late stepfather was a janitor.

Van Bramer said those applicants that enter the apprenticeship program “will do well because it’s an important skill position and the work is obviously very important.”

He also noted the significance of plumbing jobs for the city’s working population.

“They’re the difference between reaching the middle class and for some being stuck in poverty. These kinds of jobs are most important to grow in this economy because they provide good wages, with good benefits and a pension. These are the jobs that allowed my family to reach the middle-class.”

Van Bramer noted that in his district in Queens Local 1 plumbers are currently working on two new schools, PS/IS 304 in Long Island City, PS 313 in Sunnyside, and they will also do plumbing work when construction begins on IS/HS 404 in Hunters Point and another location in Woodside.

Arthur Klock Jr., Director of Trade Education at the local’s 40,000 square foot training facility in Long Island City, has been in the industry for about 30 years.

While 1,000 applications were distributed on July 5, the hard reality is that only a small percentage of the applicants will be accepted into the apprenticeship program.

He explained that each applicant is interviewed by a committee, made up of one rep from Local 1 and another from management.

“The applicants are graded on their performance in the interview, and they get points for previous work, education and military experience,” said Klock.

After they make it through the interview, the applicants are required to take an aptitude tested administered by the NY State Department of Labor.

The minimum qualification required to enter the apprenticeship program is a high school diploma with a math grade of at least a 70 or “C.” Alternatively, applicants can possess a GED with a minimum math score of 550.

“This is just the beginning of the qualifying process. A ranked list is produced and that list quickly drops from 1,000 to 500,” said Klock.

It is from the list of 500 that the applicants who are highest ranked are qualified to enter the apprenticeship program. Klock noted the previous time the union distributed applications was in 2009, and out of 1,000 applicants, only 150 were accepted, which was partially due to the poor economic climate.

Klock believes the number will be higher this year because the construction industry is seeing an uptick in activity. But, more importantly, the number has to increase because the union is losing members to retirement.

“We see a large number of our 6,000 members retiring over the next ten years, so we’ve got to start replacing them now. It takes five years just to train someone to be a journeyman, and another five years to become a master tradesman, or foreman,” Klock said.

Klock said Local 1’s training program is the best bar none. Apprentices have to go to work every day with the exception of spending a full day in school one day every two weeks. They are also are required to take college courses after their first year where instructors from Empire State College teach science at the learning facility so that the apprentices can earn an associate’s degree in science.

Klock said Local 1’s edge is its training program, which makes it competitive against non-union contractors. But of increasing concern to the union is the increasing amount of work going to non-union outfits.  

“There’s always been a segment of the plumbing industry that has been non-union, such as mom and pop operations. But now there are out-of state developers getting big jobs who bring along their larger non-union construction firm.”

So the union has to ensure that it stays on top of the latest technologies and trends so when a contractor calls the union hall requesting 10 men, the contractor expects them to be work ready and highly skilled.

“The only difference between us and a non-union contractor is the skill level of the manpower. Our edge is our training. Our apprentices get five years of training, earn an associate’s degree, which is in sharp contrast to a guy hired off the street with no certification and a lack of training with a wide variety of different applications and material use,” noted Klock.

One way the union has been responding to the non-union threat is by ramping up its training program not only for apprentices but for journeymen, who make up the majority of Local 1’s membership.

Klock said the industry has changed over the years, especially technologically. It used to be that traditional welding was very labor intensive.

“A welder would stand at a machine manipulating the molten metal to make the weld, which requires a very high skill level and a tremendous amount of training.”

Now the industry is shifting to orbital welding which automates the welding process. The challenge here is that the worker has to set up precisely the machine, which can be tricky, and then pushes a button and the machine does the welding.

“The fact of the matter is we have to be forward thinking to keep our edge in training. We want to be on top of new technology and out in front,” Klock said.

Currently, approximately 400 apprentices and also journeymen are in training at the facility. According to Donald Doherty, Financial Secretary-Treasurer for UA Plumbers Local 1, an apprentice starts out at about $14 per hour, and by his fifth year, earns about $36 per hour. Ironically, as apprentices gain more training and earn higher wages, a contractor will hire the younger apprentices because they’re paid less, or for $36 per hour, will instead hire a journeyman.  marc@laborpress.org 

July 27, 2012

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