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With Thousands Of Trade Workers Expected To Retire, Local Unions Seek Apprentices

Local trade unions say thousands of workers are expected to retire in the next five to seven years, leaving a void of people to fill those jobs.

Sixteen construction trade unions in western Pennsylvania are looking for a few thousand new members.

In western Pennsylvania, there are about 41,000 union members in construction trades, such as carpenters and bricklayers, according to Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania Executive Director Jeff Nobers. He said 25 to 30 percent of them are expected to retire in the next seven years.

Nobers said he also expects the number of skilled workers needed in the local economy to increase in the coming years, creating even more of a void.

“It takes three to five years to get through an apprenticeship program,” Nobers said. “That’s why it’s so important for us right now to get people into the trades that really have an interest and a dedication to it and want to be part of something that’s building our region.”

The unions plan to work closely with school districts through the Consortium for Public Education to promote what they described as family-sustaining careers with health benefits and pension plans.

“The skills you gain going through these apprentice schools are just like skills that any other professional gains through their post-secondary education,” Nobers said.

Union officials said members can make $50,000 or more right out of their apprenticeship. Additionally, trade and vocational schools often cost a fraction of traditional colleges, leaving new workers with little or no debt -- a point Nobers stressed. 

Three years ago, the consortium began including the skilled trades when talking to high schoolers about their options after graduation.

“We are really focused on the fact that there are lots of ways to get post-secondary education,” said Mary Kay Babyak, executive director of the Consortium of Western Pennsylvania. “The idea is for us to be able to bring high school kids along with educators, along with families, to understand that there are wonderful opportunities … for kids that want to do something more hands-on.”

The consortium meets with students in schools, but also takes them to the apprenticeship training facilities to let them see the sites first hand and interact with the trainers and others in the programs.

“There’s nothing embarrassing about being a union carpenter or a union electrician,” Nobers said. “If you have an issue in your home with the electrical, you’re not going to fix that yourself.  You’re going to call a trained professional. And I would just invite anyone to take a look at what your bill was.”

Nobers said the expected construction of an ethane cracker plant in Beaver County is getting a lot of attention when it comes to creating construction jobs, but he expects to see an uptick in building throughout the 33 counties of western Pennsylvania.

“I think that Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania is really positioned to provide the opportunities with the explosion of building that we have going on commercially,” Babyak said. “While no job is ever guaranteed or safe for the next 40 years, I think we are at a very different place than we were 10 years ago … we’re not just talking about a job for a year or two.”

(Photo via Scott Lewis/Flickr)