Building Trades Apprenticeships are a Pathway to Success that Benefits All Californians


November 2014 - Through our Trades’ apprenticeship programs, we are able to make a positive difference in the lives of tens of thousands of young people, including those about to graduate from high school, not bound for university educations, but who have great opportunities to learn the skills and abilities to make them valuable contributors to the economy of California and a better quality of life.

In 1972, my grandfather told me, “Son, we are lucky to have a trade.” Our family were all iron workers. He said they can close down a factory or a mill and a factory worker has lost the ability to make a living. But with a trade, it is in your hands, it’s in your eyes, and in your DNA. You have a skill that goes with you. It cannot be taken away. You have ability, and you will always be able to take care of your family.

With that, in June of that year, I began an apprenticeship with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, starting my trade as an apprentice iron worker/rigger in the Harlan and Wolfe shipyards in Belfast.

That apprenticeship provided me the means to learn the skills that would benefit me the rest of my life, working across the United States. I had a trade and in any city I travelled through, I could go to work; eventually building skyscrapers and bridges in California and Nevada as a proud member of Ironworkers Local 433 in Los Angeles.

So it is a source of immense pride that today, as President of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, I am able to continue to work with forward-looking public officials like Governor Jerry Brown and many other wise elected representatives to enhance and expand apprenticeships, ensuring that today’s young people in California have every opportunity to build good productive careers and lives.

According to the Department of Industrial Relations, there are 54,000 working apprentices in California. Some 43,000, or 79 percent of those apprentices, are in the construction field. They will build our infrastructure and other valuable projects in the decades to come.

The California Building Trades has been a leader in self-funding, developing and providing apprenticeships since its inception 113 years ago. It is our system for passing skills from one generation to the next. Most apprentices work 40-hour weeks, earning a paycheck, interwoven with thousands of hours of classroom instruction for three to five years. Upon completion, the journeyman can earn excellent wages and benefits, including a health plan and a pension, allowing a blue-collar worker to buy a home, support a family, and eventually, after a lifetime of labor, retire with dignity.

Our Building Trades apprenticeships are a proven pathway to success. Today’s foremen, superintendents and even some company owners started as apprentices, where they learned the work ethic and the high-tech skills required for modern construction.

Apprenticeships are a great bargain for California, providing our young people with valuable job skills, self-funded by the individual trades, with a tiny fraction of funding from the Department of Education’s budget. Those workers, in turn, become the streamlined highly skilled work force that delivers the highest quality of construction work, building lasting projects that benefit all of us for decades and beyond.

If anything, the need for widely available apprenticeship programs is greater than ever before. Our current work force is rapidly aging, and thousands of construction workers will retire within just a few years, creating a strong demand for the highly skilled workers our apprenticeships provide.

In a state that is suffering from a loss of decent paying blue collar jobs, where we no longer build cars, produce steel, or even manufacture airplanes, the Building Trades are one of the few choices available to working class kids. We work for private companies, under the lowest bid, using the least amount of workers, building it once, building it right, and driving the economy. If these companies are not profitable, we would not survive. Today we stand in excess of 400,000 Building Trades members in this state and we are successful, based on our skill and can-do attitude.

The Center on Policy Initiatives took an in-depth look at Building Trades apprenticeships in a 2009 study. It found that without question, the unique combination of on-the-job immersion training, with the accompanying classroom instruction, resulted in a clearly superior, more effective program than other types of training. “Apprentices emerge from the programs proficient in safety and environmental laws and regulations, first aid and CPR, mathematics, drafting, blueprint reading and other sciences connected with the trade.”

It continued: “Apprenticeship programs benefit the entire community by providing good wages, health insurance and career stability.” Additionally, “The stringent training also helps ensure high quality public works projects and cost containment by decreasing turnover, workplace accidents and lost productivity.”

In conclusion: Building Trades apprenticeship programs provide the best model to keep the construction industry efficient and on the high road, providing high-quality jobs, to the benefit of the industry, the workers and the state.

In the coming year, we are going to take this message to public officials whose continued support of apprenticeships is vital to the economy and the construction industry as a whole. It will be up to all of us to make sure our elected officials continue to understand the great value and benefits that real apprenticeships bring to all Californians.


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