By Andrew Kirk
Those who graduated from college or a university this year could expect to make on average about $50,000 for their first year of work, according to several independent national surveys.
They could also expect, on average, to have about that much in student debt.
Those working in the construction trades shake their heads at those statistics, as they start their education earning the same salary and then graduate debt-free for a salary that’s twice that.
David Jarrett was working in the banking and real estate industry when he experienced medical issues and found himself searching for a career at age 29 that would provide medical benefits.
Nearly 10 years older than most of his classmates, he started the UA Local 598 Plumbers and Steamfitters apprenticeship program five years ago. Not knowing anything about welding, Jarrett said he was amazed by the training and support he received while earning with a living wage working alongside a veteran welder.
During the day he worked and then attended school twice a week and every other weekend. He’s now ready to graduate and can realistically expect $90,000 to $100,000 per year, benefits and a retirement plan.
“The experience was amazing… I went from not knowing anything to successfully getting paid to fit, grind and weld large industrial projects,” he said.
Jason Lee, field representative for Local 598, oversees the training program in Pasco and said there’s a huge labor shortage in today’s economy—especially in the Tri-Cities. Large local projects are bringing in tradespeople from outside the area to perform skilled labor, and then those people leave with their paychecks, he said.
“There’s a need for skilled workforce. That’s what apprenticeships are all about. They’re not secondary to a four-year degree, they’re equal to a four-year degree in building a skilled workforce,” he said.
The program is competitive, with between 15 to 30 new apprentices accepted each year at Lee’s facility in Pasco. But the program is free to participants and paid for by the union.
They “earn as they learn” for five years and boast a 95 percent retention rate. And those who drop out do so for personal reasons, not because the program was too demanding, Lee said. Since it’s the union’s money and reputation on the line, union officials are invested in making sure each apprentice succeeds.
About 5 percent of program applicants have family in the trades. No previous experience is necessary, although it may make one a better candidate. The unions are actively recruiting more women and minorities.
“I’m a first-generation pipefitter/steamfitter,” Lee said. “We’re there to benefit the apprentice.”
Marcus Burleson is the training director for the Joint Apprenticeship Training Community, or JATC, which receives support from both the Local 112 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association.
He said apprentices at the JATC pay about $1,500 per year for books, fees and tuition for five years and finish with a six-figure salary and a Columbia Basin College certificate.
“It’s for anybody and everybody,” Burleson said. “We have a couple job classifications you don’t need any previous experience for. It’s basically unlicensed work.”
The JATC accepts about six to 10 apprentices at a time and staggers start times throughout the year for a total of about 40 to 60 first-year apprentices per calendar year.
Qualified applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent and have fulfilled a minimum math requirement, which can be satisfied with an online course, if needed. Applicants must be 18 years old. The apprentices come in for a week’s worth of training, then work in the field under supervision for six weeks before returning for more training.
Applicants are interviewed by a committee at the JATC and if they score highly but don’t make the cut, their name stays on the list for two years. They’re invited to join when openings appear, Burleson explained. In the meantime, they can work unlicensed jobs, such as a material handlers shuffling supplies from source to site, and observing apprentices and their instructors working on site.
Lee said applicants who don’t make the cut can take classes in the trades at CBC, or apply to other trade schools like Perry Technical Institute in Yakima. Tri-Tech Skills Center is free for high school students and offers an excellent program, he said.
It’s important to remember union apprenticeships are an incredible opportunity and are therefore competitive, Lee said. Many doctors aren’t accepted to medical school the first time they apply, he added.
“This is definitely a career path forward—not a job. If everyone would buy into it, we’d be building a workforce for our area,” he said. “Imagine if our graduates were building Tri-Cities and putting their money back into the Tri-Cities.”
Burleson said there’s a big push to bring more women into the trades, and even change language to create a more welcoming environment. Journeymen are now journey-level persons,” he said.
To explore a career in the trades Lee recommends students sign up for wood shop and/or metal shop, take classes at Tri-Tech and meet as many professionals in a given trade as possible.
Burleson said he was invited to attend a construction trades job fair for high school students and he brought two women with him to talk about their profession. Tri-Tech has a popular “women in construction” day that opens students’ eyes to the variety of workers who can find a place in the trades.
If a student is really tech savvy, his or her parents might push them toward engineering, but they’re also needed in the trades, Lee said. Technology is making waves in his profession and apprentices comfortable with mastering new tools and learning new computer programs are going to have a comfortable future, he said.
Kurt Gustafson is about to start his fifth year at JATC. He said he’s already amazed by what robots and machines can do. There will always be a need for a human touch in electric work, he said, and it gives him the assurance of job security.
“Here locally we have the best work outlook,” he said. “Here we make fantastic money. The training is second to none. I think… it’s an essential job.”
Gustafson said apprenticeships are for people who prefer hands-on learning.
“For me… I managed to graduate high school in spite of myself,” he said. “A typical classroom environment wasn’t conducive to my learning style. This is fantastic.”
He advises young people to find out the pros and cons of different trades. They’re all in such high demand locally there isn’t a bad one to choose, but some are more physically demanding. Some have unparalleled benefits packages.
Jarrett said he loves that the union fosters camaraderie.
“A lot of people don’t understand how good the trades are,” he said. “Unions aren’t just about collective bargaining, but also about the amount of education we provide and how we support and train each other.”
To see a list of all apprenticeships available in Washington state, Lee recommended perusing the Department of Labor and Industries’ website, which has a comprehensive list at lni.wa.gov/TradesLicensing/Apprenticeship.
According to the list, more than 16,000 Washingtonians are currently enrolled in apprenticeships.
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