COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | TOM LEMMON

Union apprenticeship the right choice

A four-year college education was once the sure road to a secure career. But budget cutbacks, rising tuition costs and shrinking scholarship funds have made higher education harder to afford for many potential students. And recent studies have shown that nearly half of those who do achieve university degrees are unable to find suitable jobs — or any jobs — within several years of graduation.

High school seniors, as well as veterans returning home from the Middle East, need an effective alternative path to quality careers. College enrollment may still the best plan for many, but for others it may not be an option at all.

Apprenticeship can offer an excellent alternative — one that opens doors to real careers in which workers enjoy stable employment, middle-class wages, health benefits for workers and their families, and ultimately a pension to ensure a secure retirement.

Choosing the right apprenticeship program is the key to success, and apprenticeships offered by unions have a proven track record. In California, 82 percent of those enrolled in a state’s approved apprenticeship programs are in programs administered and paid for by Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees. Unions, along with their signatory contractors, work together creating programs that account for 92 percent of all registered apprentices who actually graduate.

The Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees also account for the lion’s share of minorities who enter the trades, plus a whopping 95 percent of women who become journeywomen.

The San Diego County Building and Construction Trade Unions offer a lot of options for students to obtain the skills that will ensure their success in a variety of challenging and rewarding careers. In San Diego County, there are 22 different Building Trade Unions offering training programs — apprenticeship programs where you can “earn while you learn” — all while getting college credit.

These apprentices today represent the master tradesmen of tomorrow, who will construct and maintain everything from the buildings we live and work in to the roads we drive on, the schools where our children learn, and the infrastructure that deliver water and power throughout our region.

Another advantage of apprenticeship is the reality that you get paid while you’re getting on-the-job training. Students complete their college-approved coursework in evening classes that are scheduled to not conflict with the students' work schedules, and they pay no tuition fees, meaning they don’t have to worry about student loan payments once their education is complete.

The Helmets to Hardhats program offers veterans a fast track to job training for new careers in the construction field. Former military personnel also have the opportunity to enter paid apprenticeship programs and may even be eligible to receive Veterans Affairs benefits to supplement their income while training in their chosen field.

In one area of explosive growth, Helmets to Hardhats prepares workers for careers in the “green jobs” industry. Often dismissed as being the domain of scientists in white lab coats, the booming “green” industry has strong demand for skilled workers to build and install energy-efficient technology, solar panels and power-generating windmills throughout the nation.

Launched in 2003 with Department of Defense funding, Helmets to Hardhats has developed connections with 15 building and construction trade organizations representing 3 million workers nationwide, and they’re always looking for more.

Likewise, the Veterans in Piping program, administered by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, is specifically tailored to help returning veterans transition to civilian life while equipping them with job skills. It places workers with contractors around the country who are adding staff in anticipation of increased business in the near future.

Like all union workers, veterans who join these programs can expect to enjoy the best pay and benefits packages available in their chosen trade, as well as the security of a guaranteed pension income in retirement.

In short, union apprenticeships present a great opportunity for high school graduates and veterans to enter the civilian work force and start cashing paychecks right away while building skills to ensure a stable and rewarding career. On this path, they avoid student debt and become part of the proud tradition of men and women who build and maintain the infrastructure that drives American society.

Lemmon is the business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO overseeing 22 trades affiliates and 14 joint labor-management apprenticeships.

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