Iron Workers Apprenticeship Program Training a New Generation of Monument Builders
by Paul Burton
A new generation of Ironworkers is being trained at the Local 377 and Local 378 Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center in Benicia. “We call it the University of Iron, and I take that very seriously,” said Apprenticeship and Training Coordinator Brian Colombo. “I want the education that we provide our apprentices to help them to strive for knowledge and achieve their goals. We are developing that same level of dedication that I felt as a student at UC Berkeley, and when I was an apprentice.” He said that the prevailing theme for the union’s training program is professionalism. “You’ll never develop the skills without a professional attitude,” he said. “Be on time. Be drug free and have a good attitude.” Colombo said the program is intensely competitive and only those who commit to working hard survive. He said there are many people looking for work and he expects that there will be more jobs as public works continue and private sector work picks up.
Trainees learn the basic skills required for all the aspects of being an Ironworker, while also getting on-the-job training and earning a good wage. Apprenticeship is served for a four-year period, which includes a minimum of 480 hours of related classroom instruction and 6,000 hours on-the-job-training.
Apprentices enter the program through a referral from a union signatory contractor. Starting wages for Ironworker apprentices are 50 percent of a journeyman’s wage. As an apprentice accumulates an established number of on-the-job hours plus related and supplemental instruction hours, wages are increased at regular intervals. Graduating apprentices attain journeyman status after four years and receive full pay for the skills they have earned.
Apprentices start with the basics, with a comprehensive safety training class on OSHA rules and regulations and safe job practices, then move on to math and reading blueprints. They then learn the basics of rigging, welding and other skills.
There are currently 650 apprentices in the program. “It’s a big program, but we take an interest in every individual,” Colombo said. “The instructors are very serious about imparting their knowledge and being role models.”
The apprentices learn a variety of skills to perform work in several related sectors, including Structural, Reinforcing, Ornamental (Architectural), Rigging and Machinery Moving, and Welding and Burning. Colombo said he encourages apprentices to become a well-rounded journeyman, and if they aren’t working to go to the union hall and seek out work they may not have done before. “If they’ve done structural, I tell them to try to get a rod job if one is available,” he said. “I encourage them to pursue welding; it’s difficult and highly valued by contractors.” Colombo said as Ironworkers learn the different types of welding, they can advance faster through the program. “It’s a huge incentive for them,” he said.
Colombo said the program was training workers for the future—developing the future foremen and instructors who will carry the trade forward. “You have to have a lot of pride,” he said. “We build monuments.” He said there would be work coming up for Ironworkers in the Bay Area as leading edge Universities develop research centers as well as in the energy sector with power plants and windmills. Colombo said there is a lot of interest in the trade now and “a lot of legacies—apprentices who follow in the footsteps of their fathers or uncles.”
Fourth year apprentice Dennis Noeski said he is a third generation Ironworker following his grandfather and father, and an uncle who is a foreman. Noeski said he works nights for Olsen Steel at the Hayward BART station, doing maintenance and retrofitting the facility. “It’s fun, but demanding,” he said. A member of Local 377 in San Francisco, Noeski will turn out as a Journeyman next year.
Another legacy Ironworker, Jennifer Cecil, said her father is a journeyman who helped her get into the “Gladiator” class at the training center. She said she has gotten to do a variety of work and learned many skills. Cecil works on maintenance at the Golden Gate Bridge and will become a Journeyman next March.
Apprentice Ed Barros said he had four nephews who were in Local 377. He has another year to go to become a journeyman. In a recent Architectural II class, instructor Jorge Esparza showed the apprentices how to use surveying tools. Esparza said he works to make sure every apprentice is prepared, through hands-on experience and classroom instruction. He said that contractors are looking for the best workers who have many skills and understand safety on the job. “We supply them with workers so we try to give them the best we can,” he said.
The contractors also contribute material, blueprints, and funding to the program. Colombo said that, “The signatory contractors are making a huge investment and have faith in our training program. We train their future employees, so we emphasize to the apprentices the value of having a good relationship with the employers—to be good at what you do.”
The training center has a variety of structures used for learning rebar tying and installation, post tensioning steel reinforcement, and other tasks. Union contractor Conco supplied blueprints for the students to study installing post-tensioning cables to place in concrete forms along reinforcing steel.
Instructor Esparza said that the training program is “for people who want to do something good and learn a good trade. It’s not just 18 to 20 year-olds, but older workers as well. We teach them what tools to use, how to be productive and safe on the job, and how to be professional.” A member of Local 378, Esparza worked in the field for 12 years before becoming an instructor six years ago. He said he enjoys teaching and that “you see a total change in the apprentices after four years. People learn how to do something in their life. With the life lessons you get here, you feel like you can do a lot of things. You learn skills you can use for the rest of your life.”
The University of Iron offers journeymen access to ongoing training to upgrade their skills. Journeyman Chris Bowle, an Ironworker for 15 years, said, “This facility speaks for itself. You won’t find anything like it on the non-union side. A facility like this puts us ahead of the curve. You can drop in when the shop is open and work on welding techniques. Certain jobs require certain types of certification so a welder can come in and retrain and upgrade.”
Local 378 member Terry Akin said as technology gets upgraded, it’s important for the Ironworkers to upgrade their skills and knowledge. He said he has worked on windmill projects that require some special skills and that work has been steady and should pick up as more alternative energy projects get started.
Bowle said “We look for PLA jobs—for us that’s big.” He pointed out that jobs with Project Labor Agreements require qualified, skilled workers—giving the well-trained union members an advantage. While sharing some of his knowledge about welding to a young apprentice, Bowle said it was important to mention “our brotherhood.” He said that “there is strength in solidarity; the union is about a brotherhood.”
For more information, check www.universityofiron.org/apprenticeship.html.