June 24, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
Long Island City, NY – With an average age of less than 23 between them, first-year apprentices Catherine Gropper, Michelle Collins and Dennis Coluccio, easily qualify as the future of Steamfitters Local 638.
All three are honing their professional skills at the Steamfitters Industry Training Center, located at 48-03 32nd Place, while simultaneously embarking on solidly middle-class careers that could potentially carry them well beyond the mid-century mark.
“My whole family is in the union, but I kind of wanted to get into it myself to see what the whole lifestyle is about,” says Gropper, 25.
In operation since 1989, the two-story, 26,000 square-foot training facility in Long Island City is poised for expansion as Local 638 prepares to outfit the building with more welding, soldering and brazing stations, as well as additional classrooms housed in space formerly dedicated to the relocated union hall.
“It’s been a challenge, but I’m a person who likes challenges,” says Collins, 24. "I wanted to enter the union while still in high school, but I didn’t have a diploma at the time of the last test. But when the opportunity came back around, I went, took the test, and got in — I’m having fun.”
The current class of apprentices stands at 305, but that number could rise to 375 as early as this fall. The retention rate for Steamfitters is over 82-percent. Each year, as many as 600 journeyworkers also utilize the training center’s facilities to improve skills and add important career-building credentials.
In 2013, nearly 4,000 people interviewed for spots in the 5-year apprentice program. The Steamfitters rented out the LaGuardia Marriott for 22 days and spent in excess of $117,000 to give everybody a shot.
Coluccio came to Local 638 thorough the Construction Skills program while still in high school, and got the call from the union a month after graduation.
“I got called to work while still only 17-years-old — then I turned 18, and they put me right to work,” says Coluccio, 18. “It’s been cool.”
The infusion of tech- and social-media savvy youths like Gropper, Collins and Coluccio has already had a profound impact on the Steamfitters’ entire approach to training.
“Seven years ago, we told all of our apprentices to put your phones away, get them off the table — we don’t need that,” Local 638 Training Director Tom Goodwin says. “And today, all of the apprentices are using their devices to look up data, check charts, formulas — all sorts of things. We have to rethink how older guys like myself look at the younger people and technology. They have all this information at their fingertips, so, why not utilize it?”
Tim Rooney, an instructor at the training center since 2010, used to bristle at smart phones in the classroom, too — but no longer, now that there are apps that can take the place of big, boxy air-flow meters and the like.
“It’s amazing,” Rooney says. “Back in the day, we’d have to do all sorts of calculations. They [young apprentices] just hit a button.”
Next generation Steamfitters say they have a dual responsibility to absorb time-honored skills and traditions, while also helping to advance positive change and growth.
“Everything is changing,” Collins says. “This trade is changing. Business is changing. It’s not a man’s world anymore. Women are dominating just as much, which is great. We definitely don’t want to slack. I’m trying to take in everything that’s been passed down. You want to keep the trade the same — with just a few little tweaks.”
Goodwin, one of only a handful of Steamfitters to hold the director of eduction post since the training program’s inception in 1947, recently obtained a grant to secure 30 laptops, a docking station and two routers, in part, to help facilitate remote testing of apprentices.
“We’ve got to give the first-year apprentice a lot of information about a lot of different things because our industry is heating, air-conditioning, ventilating, fire protection, industrial welding, commercial refrigeration and more,” Goodwin says. “So, there’s a lot to absorb. We have to open their eyes, and we have to keep them safe.”
The constant need for high-end education doesn’t end with apprentices and journey workers — every year, instructors and administrators also undergo a challenging 40-hour training course covering the latest developments in the industry.
“It’s a tough run,” Goodwin admits. “We come back a little softer in September understanding what students have to go through.”
Local 638 recently graduated 20 apprentices. Soon, the union expects to send out letters to 90 more prospective candidates — all, in part, to meet the demand of several Project Labor Agreements, or PLAs, which require a certain ratio of apprentices to help lower construction costs, while also benefitting workers in training.
The upcoming Hudson Yards project in 2017, for example, will employ some 425 Steamfitters — about 105 of them apprentices just starting their new careers like Gropper, Collins and Coluccio.
“Our future is looking real good,” Goodwin says.