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TradeUp teaching apprentices tricks

By Richard Metcalf
Journal Staff Writer
      Travis Arnall had tried community college and jobs like framing new houses, remodeling old ones and working a phone at call centers when, at age 30, he signed up for a five-year apprenticeship to become a plumber.
    “That's when I made my career choice,” he said. “I would say out of the jobs I held prior to this, I wasn't making bad money — at least for this state — but I never felt I had a career that I could retire from.”
    Arnall, who is completing his first year of training, is part of a steady trickle of candidates into union apprenticeships for some of the more specialized construction trades that include plumbers, electricians and the people who do heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.
    The candidates get paid while they get on-the-job training and attend classes, typically held once a week. It takes four or five years, depending on the trade, to reach the goal of becoming a state-certified journeyman.
    Regardless of their specific trade, a journeyman must pass both written and practical exams to get certified. When a homeowner needs a plumber or electrician, it's a journeyman who will likely show up at the house.
    But there's not enough young people like Arnall entering the union apprenticeship program. And many of the people who provide and maintain the infrastructure in all of our buildings — heating, cooling, plumbing and power — are heading toward retirement.
    For example, the average age is 44 for members of the United Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local Union 412 in Albuquerque, said business manager Tom Montaño. A similar demographic holds true for the electrical union.
    To fill the ranks of the next generation of electricians, plumbers and HVAC technicians, the unions have joined forces with contractors to launch a recruiting campaign called TradeUp New Mexico. The target is primarily high school juniors and seniors at Albuquerque Public Schools.
    TradeUp's three apprenticeship programs are among 35 state-approved apprenticeship programs for the construction trades in New Mexico. Some programs are union, some are not.
    Until the TradeUp campaign started four months ago, David McCoy of the New Mexico Sheet Metal Contractors Association of New Mexico said, “We haven't marketed our industry. We're builders, not marketers.”
    Long-term opportunity
    Jobs like plumber, electrician and HVAC technician don't necessarily stand out in an increasingly diverse field of job opportunities.
    A college education has become imbedded as part of the American dream, much like owning a house. For many young people, a four- or five-year apprenticeship in a skilled construction trade seems old school.
    Jobs Related Almanac, a guide to the job market, routinely puts plumbers, electricians, welders and sheet metal workers (an HVAC-related job) near the bottom of its annual ranking of 250 jobs based on such factors as stress, pay, benefits, job security, travel, work environment and physical demands.
    On the other side of the coin, however, the Web site careervoyages.gov ranks electricians at No. 20 and plumbers at No. 32 in its list of the top 50 jobs that will be in high demand over the next eight years. The government-sponsored Web site's list is loaded with jobs in education, health care and information technology.
    In addition, plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians and related jobs make good money. According to a 2007 wage report by the state Department of Workforce Solutions, the median pay in the Albuquerque metro area was $35,923 a year, meaning half of all workers made less and half made more. Here's how certain trades stack up:
    Plumbers and pipe fitters had a median wage of $40,536, close to 13 percent more than the labor force as a whole.
    Electricians had a median wage of $37,775 a year, or 5 percent more than the labor force as a whole.
    Sheet metal workers had a median wage of $37,761 a year, also about 5 percent more.
    HVAC technicians had a median wage of $36,040 a year, or just slightly more than the labor force as a whole.
    Unionized trades people get family health care coverage and pension benefits on top of their wage.
    'A good deal'
    Belen native Isaiah Zemke did a short stint as a student at the University of New Mexico's Valencia campus before taking sheet metal jobs with nonunion mechanical contractors in Albuquerque. After a year and a half without a pay raise, he said he signed up for the union apprenticeship program because “you hear they treat you better.”
    Now age 25 and a homeowner, Zemke is three years into a four-year apprenticeship to become a journeyman crafting sheet metal components for buildings and HVAC systems. He said he likes the hands-on work and variety of tasks both in the field and in the shop.
    “It's been a good deal,” he said. “I'm slowly climbing the ladder of life.”
    Not every union apprentice completes the program. The local graduation rate for plumbers and pipe fitters is 75 percent, said Steve Crespin of the Mechanical Contractors Association of New Mexico. The rate for sheet metal workers is 54 percent, and 50 percent for electricians, he said.
    The graduation rate for plumbers and pipe fitters is high because the apprentice program has a discipline committee. Crespin explained, “When we see one of our students go astray, we reel them in pretty quickly.”
    For comparison, the six-year graduation rate at UNM is about 45 percent.
    “The difference is when someone completes our course, they have zero student loans,” Crespin said. “And they've been making money the whole time.”
    People in the union trades work almost exclusively on commercial and industrial projects, so the pace of work has not dropped the way residential construction has. In addition, the projects can be large and complicated.
    “Our industry has evolved into highly technical work,” said Rob Biedermann of J.B. Henderson Construction, “At a manufacturing plant like Intel, you can be working on a piece of equipment worth tens of millions of dollars.”
    Selling it
    TradeUp New Mexico is in part an attempt to counter the marginalization of the construction trades.
    When the baby boomers were embarking on careers as electricians, plumbers and HVAC techs 30 years ago, Biedermann said construction was booming in the metro area and “the trades had a much better image.”
    Today, high school students face a myriad of choices regarding future education and careers, said Therese Carroll, APS redesign coordinator. Before the TradeUp program, the union trades lacked the kind of polished brochures and related Web site to grab student interest.
    The program fits into APS' preparation to comply with the state High School Redesign Act passed in 2007. The act basically requires high school curriculums be designed to prepare graduates better for college or trade school.
    TradeUp recommends classes, including some offered at Central New Mexico Community College, to prepare students for a career in a skilled trade, she said. “We need to start helping them earlier in choosing courses that serve as a stepping stone to a career,” Carroll said.
    The unions and contractor associations formed the Mechanical Electrical Sheet metal Alliance, or MESA, as their platform to launch the recruiting campaign.
    The Garrity Group, a local public relations company, was hired to develop marketing material and create the tradeupnm.com Web site. The group's president, Tom Garrity, is a former APS administrator.
    In addition to the Sheet Metal Workers, participating unions are Plumber & Pipe Fitters Local 412 and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 611. In addition to the mechanical contractors group, employer participants include the New Mexico Sheet Metal Contractors Association and the New Mexico chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association.
    In demand
    The TradeUp New Mexico apprentice recruitment program applies to:
    Pipe fitters and steam fitters, who work on piping systems
    Linemen, who work on power generation systems
    Sheet metal workers, who craft metal components in buildings such as ductwork and downspouts
    HVAC technicians
    For more information, go to tradeupnm.com.
In demand