There is one thing we can do in the San Joaquin Valley to improve our economy, improve graduation rates and help more families realize prosperity.
Best of all, it doesn’t cost a cent.
What’s this silver bullet?
Talk to youngsters in the classroom about the possibilities available to anyone who works hard, stays out of trouble, knows basic math, can show up on time and avoids drugs.
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I’m sure that many teachers already are saying these things, but this is a message best delivered by someone who has overcome obstacles and today is cashing a regular paycheck big enough to support a family, enjoy a night out and go someplace nice for vacation.
If you follow the headlines, you might not think that these jobs still exist. But they do, and many of them are in the building trades.
With the trades, I looked at what kind of future it would it provide for me. I saw the pay, the benefits, the whole package. I’d be able to start a family and provide for a family.
In 2010, local building trades leaders identified $30 billion in public construction projects in the Valley that were on the books through 2020. And that estimate didn’t include $6 billion in high-speed rail work. Nor billions of dollars more in private projects.
Some of those projects have been completed, but new ones are coming online. Among them: the planned UC Merced expansion that is expected to generate $1.9 billion in direct and indirect economic impact to our region, and the city of Fresno’s $429 million expansion and upgrade of its water system.
When all those projects were tallied up five years ago, trades leaders and Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board, realized that these projects would kick-start the Valley out of the Great Recession.
They realized, too, that more local apprentices and journeymen were needed if the Valley was going to receive the full economic impact of this huge public infrastructure investment. Another goal was to put historically underserved populations – primarily communities of color, women and military veterans – to work.
“Our pre-apprenticeship program was launched from those discussions,” says Chuck Riojas, executive secretary/treasurer for the Building and Construction Trades Council in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties.
As explained by Konczal, the Workforce Investment Board screens applicants for the unions, and the six-week program exposes potential apprentices to a variety of the trades. Those accepted are trained in construction math, safety regulations and CPR/first aid, and receive a forklift certification.
To join the pre-apprenticeship program, applicants must have a high school diploma or GED, be physically fit, proficient in eighth-grade English and math, pass a drug test and not owe past child-support payments. If one of these is a hurdle, organizers will work with applicants to help make them eligible, Konczal says.
“They can learn about as many as 11 different trades and what their hiring criteria are,” Konczal says. “To be an electrician, there is a pretty rigorous math test. To be a carpenter, you need to know geometry, conversion of fractions to decimals and vice versa, and how to measure.
“In every trade, they will be empowered to know whether they have what they need to get into a particular union. This is a big advantage because in the past, you would have had to go around to the individual unions.”
They can learn about as many as 11 different trades and what their hiring criteria are.
Adds Riojas: “They get hands-on exposure. It’s a win for everybody when a trade is getting apprenticeship applicants who have seen it and want to be there.”
He speaks from experience. Riojas graduated from McLane High School in 1982 and was a warehouse manager at now-defunct Levitz Furniture (remember “You’ll love it at Levitz”?) when he called an electrician to fix a problem at the store.
“I asked him, ‘How do you get into that?’ He gave me the number. I did the steps and was fortunate to get in.”
What kind of jobs are we talking about?
Carpenter, plumber, pipefitter, electrician, sheet-metal worker, ironworker, painter, operating engineer, mason, teamster – and more.
Apprentices generally start at $15 an hour and get benefits. Apprentices work at job sites and receive additional training in a class setting.
After completing a five-year apprenticeship, there’s a big jump in pay. A journeyman electrician makes $50 an hour, Riojas says.
Jesse Marquez was looking for a career change after being a customer service training manager for Skywest Airlines. A 1999 graduate of Golden West High School in Visalia, he was working in Bakersfield when the company told him that he would have to transfer to another city. It would have been his fourth move with the airline. He decided to check out other opportunities.
“It felt like a good time to close that chapter,” Marquez says. “With the trades, I looked at what kind of future it would provide for me. I saw the pay, the benefits, the whole package. I’d be able to start a family and provide for a family.”
Marquez got into the pre-apprenticeship program and decided that his best fit would be with the plumbers and pipefitters. Now, he’s a third-year apprentice.
“You have to bear down and get used to it because it is a lot more physical work, but the more I did, the easier it became,” Marquez says. “If you’re a hard worker and you’re not afraid to tackle problems, this career can be challenging and very rewarding.”
I wonder how many high school and college students realize that the trades provide the opportunity to “learn while you earn”? And how many know that there is a high demand for these kind of workers in the Valley?
“I know what it did in my personal story,” Riojas says. “It changes lives, and it impacts families positively. I’ve never been as optimistic as I am today. There are tremendous opportunities. All of the trades would love to double or triple their apprenticeships.”