In a still-shaky economy prompting some to call for cutbacks and austerity, union workers maintain their edge with a very different approach: by investing in excellence.
At an annual cost of nearly $750 million—largely paid for by union members and their contractors—the building and construction trades unions run the biggest private-sector training program in the United States. With a combination of book-work, hands-on learning and tough, constant feedback, the training programs every year enable some 350,000 union apprentices and upwards of 200,000 journeymen to learn and hone specialized skills—from operating cranes and earth movers to constructing skyscrapers and ventilation systems.
And it’s all about excellence—excellence that allows union members and the contractors they work for to out-perform cut-rate competitors.
Take a look at one example:
Thirty minutes south of Chicago along a pancake-flat section of Interstate 80, a large electronic billboard next to a sprawling white building announces the Pipe Fitters’ Training Center of United Association (UA) Local 597.
The Local 597 training center’s annual budget is $9.5 million, not counting the pay for apprentices, who earn a full wage every day of the four-year program, and get paid—get a paycheck in hand—every single work day. Their pay is fully funded by the local’s journeymen, who contribute $1.82 for every hour worked.
It’s a lot of money.
“It adds up,” says member Donald Hoover with a wry laugh, “but we all do it together. And you can’t forget that it’s like any other investment. If you cut back, you’re downsizing your own future.”
Hoover works as a project manager at Morrison Construction in Chicago.
“It’s not that we don’t have other ways that we could spend that money,” he says about the dues he and the local’s other members pay to maintain the enormous facility, with its more than 200,000 square feet of work space where 850 apprentices learn the exacting trade of welding and pipe-fitting in 114 welding booths.
Hoover and others at Local 597, which last year celebrated the 90th anniversary of its training program, are especially proud of the facility’s welding X-ray machine—one of three welding X-rays operated by UA. The X-rays allow instructors to inspect the quality of a weld.
And it’s a lot of welds. Last year students at the training center made more than 100,000 welding coupons—that’s the junction between two pieces of pipe, for non-welders.
Each apprentice at Local 597 learns a range of skills, from using iPads and iPhones to check work materials at the start of a job to assisting journeymen on worksites and carrying out final inspections, says instructor Mike Pelegrino.
“Our secret isn’t complicated,” says training center director John Leen. “And, really, it’s no secret at all. We strive for perfection. Absolute perfection. If our apprentices have a bad day—and everybody has a bad day—they’ll still beat the competition hands down.”
In the race for welding work, nothing beats a well-made coupon.
The stringent standards are important because there’s very little margin of error for welds that will be installed in high-pressure, high-temperature environments inside oil refineries, biodiesel plants, nuclear power plants, steel mills, commercial food processors and other unforgiving environments.
“There’s always a shortage of trained alloy pipe welders,” Leen says. “We knew that if we trained our apprentices under the best conditions, contractors would clamor for them.”
“Here’s what Local 597’s training center means to me: We’re getting the highest caliber craftsmen in the business. It’s going toward productivity and attitude,” says Dan Sharpe, president of Morrison Construction, the Chicago-based company that employs Donald Hoover.
“Our calling card is our work,” says Leen. “The proof is in the pudding. That’s all we have to sell: well-made, safe installations brought in on time. You can’t beat training, can’t beat quality.”