DUNCANSVILLE — At a news conference Friday, a trainer from the carpenters’ union did not dispute the observation that, over the past few decades, society’s respect for blue-collar workers has declined.
“More and more people don’t want to work with their hands and get dirty” said Larry Gresh, who teaches apprenticeship classes for Local 423 of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Carpenters and Joiners Council. This aversion to physical labor aligns with the “stigma” against the professions that require it, stemming from a conviction “that you have to have a college education to succeed”, said Grech.
But in reality, skilled blue-collar workers can earn a living comparable to that of the average bachelor’s degree holder and can also support their families and live in similar nice homes in similar neighborhoods, Gresh said, following of a press conference headlined by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., to tout potential funding in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2021 for the types of learning programs Gresh teaches.
There is no specific amount set aside in the $1 trillion BIL for learning, but the law allows states to use the money for workforce development and training, a Casey’s spokeswoman Natalie Adams said in an email.
“Finally, legislation that recognizes and validates that quality training leads to (these) high-skilled jobs of tomorrow,” Casey said after touring the local’s apprenticeship training center, which features a row of practice doors, partitions where apprentices can practice installing cabinets and trim, storage areas practical instruction for the installation of floor and ceiling materials – as well as standard classrooms.
Half a dozen years ago, the establishment had about 60 registered apprentices. There are now 190.
This reflects both high demand and a lack of supply, he said.
“There is work everywhere” Gresh said, citing State College and Johnstown in particular.
There is also a “exodus of retiring baby boomers” he said. “We have to catch.”
The local periodically holds informational events for those interested in learning via Zoom, after which it accepts applications.
Managers interview candidates and offer slots based on criteria such as how hard they are likely to work – based on their previous employment – and the personal qualities shown during interviews.
“The most important thing we are looking for is not your skill level,” said Grech. “It’s more the work ethic.”
Drew Simpson “didn’t know anything about carpentry” when he enrolled years ago, after learning college wasn’t his thing.
He worked as a journeyman for a few years, then became an estimator and project manager.
He is now regional director for the 17-county local, whose territory stretches from the New York border to West Virginia and Maryland.
Members of the carpenters’ union can work in various segments of the trade, from concrete formwork and framing to installing screws in drywall and installing flooring and ceiling tiles, Simpson said. .
The local’s apprenticeship courses run over a four-year period, with apprentices typically working in the field during the interim periods between courses, according to Gresh.
The local enrolled six new classes this year, Gresh said.
Classes – usually limited to around 12 students – begin with basic timber framing and move on to steel framing, drywall, ceilings, doors, hardware, wall layout, and then level work and transit and finally to “robotic total stations”, which are electronic layout tools used by surveyors.
Students do not pay tuition fees. The program is funded by what is currently a training assessment of 60 cents per hour paid by contractors. Participating contractors employ the union in all work they do within the local’s territory, according to Wade Baumgartner, senior council representative.
The union’s share of work in the region has increased “dramatically” over the past decade, according to Gresh.
Of jobs valued at $1 million or more in the past year in the local’s territory, the union has taken about 85% of the work, Baumgartner estimated.
These are mainly businesses and institutions – building shops, schools and hospitals, he said.
When candidates enter the apprenticeship program, they must join the union.
Workers start at $19.55 per hour and progress through skill levels to the journeyman rate of $32.05 at the end of the program.
On average, carpenters work about three quarters of the year, depending on the availability of work and weather conditions.
The union tries to find work within about an hour of the members’ place of residence.