Union apprenticeships could help fill need for skilled trade workers

Local shipyards have made no secret of their need to beef up the ranks of skilled-trades workers like welders and electricians.

Within the next five years or so, the region's shipyards are expected to lose more than 15,000 such valued employees to retirement.

While the yards, for nearly a century in one case, have relied on apprentice programs to help them grow their own trades experts and leaders, so have the state's building-trades unions, made up of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, ironworkers and others.

Labor officials say U.S. businesses are going to need 5 million skilled workers by 2020 and that apprenticeships can help provide them.

Last week was the nation's first-ever National Apprenticeship Week, an effort to spread the word about what trade-union leaders call "the other four-year degree" - apprenticeships offering a debt-free path to solid, middle-class jobs, without a dime of taxpayer support.

"If there's a way to make it work, we make it work," said Matt Yonka, president of the Virginia State Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents all of the union building trades in the commonwealth.

Yonka's own Chesapeake-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 80, where he's the business manager, has about 650 members, including 80 apprentices.

"We interview year-round and put people on weekly," he said.

Those accepted go to work with any of 25 signatory employers, making $13.77 an hour, along with medical and retirement benefits.

They're expected to work eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, as well as attend classes for three hours on Monday and Wednesday nights.

"We partner mostly with Norfolk Public Schools," Yonka said, adding that the evening classes are held at the Norfolk Technical Center on North Military Highway.

If they stick with it through the five-year program, they'll leave making $27 an hour with benefits, along with certification as a "journeyman wireman" in the state of Virginia - otherwise known as a full-fledged electrician.

Joe Bertini, 45, a former Virginia Beach police officer who retired in 2010, is now a third-year apprentice at Local 80.

While many former law-enforcement employees migrate to security-related jobs, Bertini said he wanted to move in another direction:

"I wanted to learn a trade that would allow me to provide for my family and give me a skill set that I could take anywhere in the country."

While the pay scale, hours and requirements may differ slightly at any of the roughly 10 other building-trades apprenticeship programs in the area, they all follow the same basic format, Yonka said.

Acceptance at some of the region's shipyard apprenticeship programs can be quite competitive - as tough, in some cases, as admission to top colleges.

"The bar is much higher," said Bill Crow, president of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, a regional trade group based in Norfolk.

When a job involves fixing a U.S.-government security asset, such as a Navy ship, the standards have to be more rigorous, he added.

Acceptance into a union building-trades program, however, is another story.

"We're different from the shipyards," Yonka said. "It's night and day, really."

All that's needed are a high school diploma or GED certificate, a valid driver's license and, in some cases, passing a basic aptitude test assessing reading and arithmetic skills.

Pat Kuhlman, training director at Ironworkers Local 79 in Norfolk, oversees roughly 30 apprentices in the local's workforce of about 260.

"We're not selective at all," he said. "The type of work we do is selective. It weeds them out."

Ironworkers can't be afraid of heights, for example. They built the roller-coasters at Busch Gardens, Kuhlman said.

Their jobs essentially revolve around steel construction, demolition, heavy rigging and welding, said Tommy Bell, business manager at Local 79.

Its apprenticeship program has been around since 1967, and it works, Bell said.

Graduates of its four-year program are "well-trained across a broad range of skill sets," sometimes enabling them to move directly into positions as foremen, he added.

Even applicants who have run into legal trouble - including a felony conviction - may still be eligible at some locals.

"We don't discriminate against that," Yonka said. "Everybody makes mistakes."

The biggest obstacle those with such records may face is an inability to work at some job sites, such as government-related facilities.

Kuhlman's program does include a felony-free requirement because so much of his local's work is in such locations.

Bell said ironworkers come home tired.

"It's a hard day's work," he said.

Bertini said as much about his new career path: "It's not easy."

He works 40 hours a week and then goes to school two nights a week, from 6 to 9.

"Then there's homework and tests," he added.

He's not looking back, though:

"Overall, it's been a blessing and a great experience so far."

Robert McCabe, 757-446-2327, robert.mccabe@pilotonline.com

Posted to: Business Jobs News

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