I had been out of high school a year or so when a former classmate suggested that I might want to sign up for a union apprenticeship with him. To be frank, I had no idea what that meant other than a road trip to downtown Los Angeles. At the time, my family and I lived in a large, affordable housing complex in National City, and the idea of a stable middle-class career was a distant possibility.
Looking back more than 30 years, I now realize that making that decision set in action a chain of events that changed the course of my life. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that a road trip to apply for a trade I knew little about would one day allow me to be the chairman and CEO of the very complex I lived in, or that I would grow up and represent working people as head of the San Diego Building & Construction Trades Council.
After getting onto the apprenticeship list (No. 256) and being told it would be at least three years before a slot opened up, I chose to join the Marine Corps. When I got out, unlike many of my veteran friends who upon leaving the service would wonder what job prospects awaited them, I was lucky because I was now No. 1 on the list. Just six days out of the Corps I started work as an asbestos worker apprentice at National Steel and Shipbuilding Company. My apprenticeship work was rigorous and included college coursework. It meant four years of driving up to Los Angeles from San Diego every other weekend for intensive training. Road trips became the norm for all of us as we would converge from all over Southern California to attend class.
But it was worth it. Though work in the trades is oftentimes dangerous and physically demanding, the advanced training that is provided keeps workers safe and teaches tomorrow’s journeymen how to work smarter and more efficiently. Union trades and their apprenticeships provide fair wages and benefits and have allowed many like me to join the middle class.
As we debate President Barack Obama’s plan to tackle our jobs crisis, union apprenticeship programs should be a model, regardless of political party or affiliation. Many people do not realize that through apprenticeships, unions provide one of the largest privately funded job training programs in the country. Apprenticeships are also the pathway to good careers that can’t be shipped overseas or outsourced.
However, the construction industry, which I am proud to be a part of, has two faces. It can exploit workers in dangerous and temporary dead-end jobs, or it can provide entry to stable, middle-class careers. Union apprenticeship programs have helped countless workers take the higher road to long-term careers. These graduates become respected journey-level workers in their trades and can eventually rise to the levels of foremen, supervisors and contractors.
Currently, there are more than 800 apprenticeship programs in California, but only a few can be called joint labor-management programs, with both workers and contractors funding the program and creating training content. Joint labor-management apprenticeship programs produce almost 92 percent of California’s construction apprenticeship graduates (as of 2009). And for that reason, the California Supreme Court made it clear to the Associated General Contractors in their recently failed lawsuit that public agencies can choose to utilize only the best apprenticeship programs.
Through apprenticeships, workers “earn as they learn,” supporting their families as they receive both in-class instruction and on-the-job work experience. Because programs align so closely with employer needs, the comprehensive and strict training that apprentices receive ensures that construction projects are built with the highest quality, highest safety standards, on time and on budget. This is a win-win-win for workers, employers and the public.
Disadvantaged workers, who face the greatest barriers to stable middle-class employment, also benefit from apprenticeships. Ninety-five percent of women and 92 percent of people of color graduating from apprenticeship programs have come out of joint labor-management programs.
Targeted programs for veterans also exist, such as Helmets to Hardhats, founded by the National Building Trades. The United Association (or Union of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters, Welders and HVAC Service Technicians) currently partners with the Marine Corps to place veterans in private sector employment. The United Association has provided state-of-the-art mobile training trailers and instructors for young men and women transitioning to civilian life again at Camp Pendleton. (More on this program at http://www.uavip.org/.)
As a veteran myself, I know what job security means to our young people exiting the service. In 2010, 11.5 percent of veterans who have served since Sept. 11, 2001, were unemployed.
Providing a pathway to middle-class careers doesn’t just help the workers who go through apprenticeships; it also benefits the U.S. economy as a whole. Consumer spending makes up 70 percent of the American economy (Gross Domestic Product), meaning that workers who earn middle-class wages and benefits contribute every day to their families, support local businesses and increase local tax revenues.
We currently face a climate where jobs and public funding are scarce, yet workers need increased training to meet the challenges of this new economy. We need work force tools that will actually create jobs, make sure jobs are high-quality and long-term, and ensure that jobs are accessible to people most in need. Supporting privately funded apprenticeship programs that link construction workers to employment is an important, commonsense strategy. I want young people today to have the same opportunities that I had and to get a fair chance to achieve their own dreams.
Tom Lemmon is the business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO.