"These guys are soft right now," Paul Martinez said. "They're going to struggle."
He was right. We were watching a group of apprentice ironworkers with hard hats on their heads and 35-pound tool belts around their waists trying to climb a vertical girder, using nothing but hand strength and the leverage of their work boots on slippery steel. The girder was marked at 10 feet with a strip of white tape. That was the finish line. As we watched, one made it and eight failed. Some could barely get one foot off the ground before giving up.
Martinez, 47, knows what he's talking about. He's a third-generation ironworker born and bred in San Pedro. He joined the ironworkers union in 1984 and helped put up the Los Angeles Convention Center, the Anaheim Pond and the new tower at LAX. Since 1998 he's been the coordinator of theapprenticeship training program for Ironworkers locals 416 and 433, which operates out of a squat industrial building in La Palma.
Every six months the program graduates 50 to 80 workers from apprenticeship to journeyman status. The upgrade roughly doubles their hourly wage to about $33 (plus about $22 an hour in retirement and health benefits) and certifies that they've had four years of training in the latest techniques of bridge and building construction, welding, and safety. That's four years of classroom instruction and physically taxing hands-on training on the program's model work site out back, doled out at the rate of one full week every three months, with the rest of the time devoted to on-the-job experience.
"For some of these kids, this is the first thing they've ever graduated from in their lives," says Robbie Hunter, executive secretary of the building and construction trades council of Los Angeles and Orange counties and a former Ironworkers president.
"Kids" may be a misnomer. The average age of the apprentices is about 32, which tells you a bit about the convoluted life paths some followed before landing in a program providing them with a ladder to the middle class. Some worked in dead-end jobs stacking boxes in warehouses. Some had felony records, including gang-related offenses.
"Once they come here and find their second family with us, they transition away from that," Martinez told me. "This is a path out of that lifestyle, so you can move to someplace like Apple Valley and raise your kids in a safe environment." Women generally make up about 5% of the class.
The La Palma program is a rebuke to the all-too-popular stereotype that a union exists only to provide featherbedding for workers and fat salaries for officers. This is one of the ways a union demonstrates its importance: by bringing the next generation along and doing its part to uphold standards of construction technique and workplace safety that save lives, including those of the people who live and work in and drive on the projects they built.
The Southern California construction trade isn't a closed shop — midsize projects are 60% to 70% unionized, Hunter estimates — but on major sites such as skyscrapers and bridges the ratio is close to 100%, and for good reason: If you're in an office or a hotel room 50 or 60 stories high or careening around a roller coaster at 60 miles per hour, wouldn't you want to know that the workers who built it had the best training available, as well as the pride and dignity that comes from a living wage and the prospect of a humane retirement?
That's the true theme of the Labor Day we're about to celebrate; not, as you may have been led to believe, that the end of summer is the perfect time for a Toyotapalooza.
Getting into the ironworkers apprenticeship program isn't a snap. It may help to have a relative, or even a well-wishing neighbor or family friend, in the Ironworkers, but that's not a prerequisite, nor is it enough. Applicants, who have to be at least 18 with a high school diploma or equivalent, must line up a construction contractor willing to sponsor them with at least six weeks of employment before they can start. That explains why, with the local construction market still soft and the building trades still suffering from about 40% unemployment, there's a waiting list of about 5,000 applicants looking for sponsors right now.
They have to come in with the right mind-set. They'll be clambering up steel girders and over beams, laying corrugated decking and hauling steel tubes and rebar, and doing so loaded down with tools and bolts. They'll be playing with fire, handling torches in the La Palma facility's welding shop.
"They've got to want it, they've got to love it," Dennis Skoug, the apprenticeship program's welding instructor, told me. "If they're coming just because their father told them to get off the couch, they're not going to make it."
They'll be learning that this is a job that demands your full attention. There's a stack of manuals and workbooks to pore over, covering how to read blueprints, do math, work with cranes. The reference manual for structural steel alone runs to more than 400 pages, describing how to erect and install the joists, beams, decks and sheeting that go into a high-rise building, a bridge, a wind turbine or a roller coaster.
The program is made for people like Jared Shoultz, a burly 32-year-old in his eighth period, meaning he's in the last half-year of the four-year program. Shoultz was born in Northern California, grew up in group and foster homes, served in the Navy and was trying to make a go of it in San Jacinto as a personal trainer when he lucked into a construction job at a nearby power plant project.
It was a nonunion site except for union electricians. "All you needed to know about the job was written on the Porta-Potties," he recalled. "I came out and asked someone, 'What's a scab?'"
After learning about the apprenticeship program, he found his first sponsor in Santa Barbara, which meant spending weeks commuting to work by motorcycle. As we talked he was setting up a welding station to sharpen his skills for an advanced certification and also get ready to match his skills against ironworker apprentices from all over the country and Canada at the biennial apprentice competitionthis month in Indianapolis. Think of it as a workers' Olympics, with eight events covering knot tying, welding and climbing a 35-foot column, among other skills. There's also a written test with 100 questions.
It's conceivable that an apprenticeship program of this magnitude could be staged outside a union setting, but it's hard to figure out who would take on the responsibility. Union members understand that "your pension depends on the next guys coming up, and they have to be trained," Martinez says. The union sees to it through collective bargaining that the employers support the program with a contribution based on hourly payroll and that a ratio of 1 apprentice to every 4 journeymen is maintained on major work sites.
But maintaining that support takes a constant struggle. The construction trade unions will be pulling out all the stops to beat Proposition 32, the massively dishonest union-bashing initiative on the November ballot, because they know that if it silences their voice in Sacramento, the harvest could be the destruction of pay and workplace standards, first on public works construction sites and then everywhere else. Nonunion labor is cheap, and isn't that what it's all about?
"People don't remember what the union is all about," Martinez told me as we toured the classrooms and training field of his center, laid out like an obstacle course of girders and beams. "It's about people who choose to negotiate to make their lives better."
Congratulations to the the women that have recently completed the Ironworkers Women Gladiator Training Class in Benicia California! These women are now employed with Union contractors doing work in tha Bay area. All of these women have sucessfully completed a three month "gladiator" class on their own time prior to entering the apprenticeship.
Another womens Gladiator class is being planned for the spring of 2013. Enrollment information will be posted in the near future. Preference will be given to candidates with welding experiance or who are currently enrolled in a community college, adult school, or private welding course.
WOMEN GLADIATORS and THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
BENICIA, Calif. (KGO) -- The Golden Gate Bridge's 75th anniversary is coming up this weekend. A lot has changed since it was built, but ironworkers are still key in bridge construction. The bridge workers of tomorrow are being trained in the Bay Area. Some of them are women.
Ironworkers consider themselves the Marines of the building trades. If that's so, then the Field Ironworkers Apprenticeship and Training Center in Benicia, also known as the University of Iron, is boot camp.
"Basket weaving and pottery's a lot of fun, but that's not what we do at the training center," apprenticeship director Dick Zampa, Jr. said. "It's welding, rigging, reinforcing, post-tensioning, architectural work and everything related to the ironworker trade."
Ironworkers Local 75 Apprenticeship Grand Opening and District Council Apprenticeship Competition
On April 15th 2010 the Ironworkers welcomed apprentices, journeymen, family members, Ironworker Trustees, and special guests to their combination grand opening and California District Council of Ironworkers bi-annual apprenticeship competition.
Apprentices Compete in rebar tying and the column climb
Apprentices from California, Nevada, and Arizona competed to see which ones will go on to the Ironworkers International Apprenticeship Competition which will be held in Seattle Washington in September. Apprentices competed in a variety of tasks including a written test, rigging, architectural assembly, Instrument setup and use, welding and burning, rebar tying, and cumulating with a climb up a 35 foot tall steel column.
District Council President Joe Standley cuts the beam to signify the opening of the new facility
At about 1:00 P.M. District Council President, Joe Standley cut a steel beam signifying the opening of the new apprenticeship facility located at 330 East Maricopa Freeway in Phoenix. There was a great barbeque lunch. Many of the guests could be heard to say that they were impressed with the new facility and the great effort was put forth by the competing apprentices. Director Dick Zampa, Coordinator Russ Johnson, and apprentice and journeyman volunteers all worked hard to make this event happen.
Jason Rafter cuts the beam to dedicate the new Reno Nevada training center
Local 118, Reno Nevada celebrates the opening of their new apprenticeship training center. October 2009
California and Vicinity District Council recently held an open house at their newest “UNIVERSITY OF IRON” Training Center, located in Reno, Nevada.District Council President Joe Standley and Western Steel Council chairman Michael Newington, together with labor and management trustees continue their work to ensure the best possible training opportunities for the membership.Business Manager for Local 118, John Rafter thanked the building committeefor their support and for funding the new facility.Local 118, Reno business agent Danny Costella advised the attendees that “The new facility will serve as a hub for labor and management in northern Nevada.”
The ceremonial beam cutting to open the new ‘University of Iron’ facility was done by Coordinator Jason Rafter.Jason thanked the trustees, members and vendors for their support of our program.
Dick Zampa, Apprenticeship Director for the Calif. and Vicinity Dist. Council advised the attendees that Ironworkers now have 9 Training Centers throughout California, Nevada and Arizona.“Our schools are IACP approved and have AWS accredited welding shops.”Classes are conducted in week long (40 hour) blocks of training.Each Apprentice attends a minimum of four week long blocks of training per year during their 4 year program.Hands on training includes work with mock ups for all phases of the Ironworkers trade including Reinforcing, Post Tensioning, Welding, Structural, Architectural and Metal Building.Safety classes conducted for Apprentices and Journeymen include OSHA 30, Scaffold, Forklift, Subpart R, First Aid / CPR, MSHA, Lead Hazard and more.Manuals and workbooks developed by the National Training Fund and IMPACT are used for apprentice and journeymen courses.
The welding shop
Group picture of the participants
Local 118 Apprenticeship in Sacramento hosts section 22 AWS meeting with Lincoln Electric discussing differences between NR 232 & NR 233 wires.
The meeting was a great success as many items were discussed.
Breaking for lunch
Apprenticeship staff pose with the honored guests.