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As Trade Unions Train Builders, Advocates Urge Educators To Show Students More Options Than College

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
A student training at the Steamfitters Technology Center In Harmony practices welding technique.

When the steel mills closed, Mary Kay Babyak, the executive director of an education nonprofit, said she thinks parents didn’t see a future for the their children in blue-collar trade jobs.

“A number of these folks have a history of seeing their parents, their grandparents, their siblings losing positions and opportunities and great jobs,” she said. “So the idea was college will guarantee success. Which it doesn’t.”

Babyak’s organization, the Consortium for Public Education, pivoted last year when a study was released by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development that found there will be a workforce shortfall of 80,000 employees in the next decade. The study found that there would be about 7,000 skilled trade positions per year available in the region, mostly because of baby boomer retirements.

Credit Allegheny Conference on Community Development
The Allegheny Conference on Community Development's report found there will be 525 annual job openings for Steamfitters in the next decade.

That study led the consortium to inform educators about vocational opportunities that will be available for their students after graduation. They take students and teachers to training centers and describe jobs in different fields, as well as what kind of pay graduates could expect.

Babyak said educators have pushed college as an opportunity for decades with good intention. But those pushes from families and teachers have had unintended consequences.

Trex Hilty recently finished an 18-week training with the Steamfitters Local 449 union. The 25-year-old has an associate’s degree in electronics engineering, but once he landed a job after college, he said he found that he didn’t enjoy the work.

“I prefer more mechanical, hands-on stuff rather than sitting there playing with circuitry,” he said.

He quit his job and applied to be an apprentice with the Steamfitters, a five-year paid program.

When Hilty was a student at Kiski High School in Westmoreland County, he said he didn’t think a trade job would be lucrative.

“There was no push for trade programs, tech schools or anything like that,” he said. “It was always ‘you need to go to college.'”

A dollar of every hour a member of the union works goes into a fund to train the next generation. That helped build the union’s new $18.5 million technology center in Harmony, north of Pittsburgh, which opened last year. Trade unions have been paying to train new workers for decades.

They’re also actively recruiting in high schools and at job fairs in anticipation of the worker shortfall. Building the Shell Cracker Plant in Beaver County alone will require more than 450 skilled welders in construction. Steamfitters install heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems. They also do process pipe welding, something that takes 1,000 hours to become proficient at, according to Ken Broadbent, the manager of the technology training center.

“Our training is a free education,” he said. “So if you want a middle class way of life and you’re a hard worker that works in the cold and rain and the heat, you can become a tradesman and work and make a middle class life.”

A steamfitter apprentice starts out making $17 an hour. That comes with health benefits and the promise of a 10 percent raise every year for five years until they become a journeyman. A journeyman makes on average $40 an hour.

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A student practices a welding technique at the Steamfitters Technology Center in Harmony, Pa.

The Builders Guild of Western PA represents other trade unions including brick layers, ironworkers, plumbers and sheet metal workers that also offer paid, tuition free on the job training. Workers who train with the union graduate debt-free. That was a draw for Hilty who said many of his friends have accumulated student loan debt. He did have to save a lot of money for a few months before he started the 18-week unpaid training.

“If you look at what you can accomplish, the benefits, the retirement, the hourly rate … you’re giving up a lot, but you’re going to get so much more back,” he said.

The Consortium for Public Education is trying to make sure educators are equipped to tell students about options in trades like Steamfitting. They don’t want to dismiss college, but Babyak said they’re finding that a number of students aren’t graduating from college and don’t have a plan when they drop out.

She said another part of the problem is the stigma against physical labor jobs.

“I think there are a lot of educators trying to break this down that’s there’s a history of stigma. You have to get past that by saying this is the job, this is what it looks like and this comes with a family-sustaining wage,” she said.

In order to keep up with the changing workforce, the Consortium organized the Future Ready Alliance. The program brings together educators, business and higher education leaders in order to strengthen resources to help students explore post-secondary education options. The program includes 17 trade union apprenticeship partners.

The image-rebuilding process for trade crafts was apparent to 18-year-old Dylan Adkins. He learned machining and welding in high school in a vocational technology program through his Titusville high school. He learned about the Steamfitters union in school and after graduation he spent a couple of months making the hour and a half one-way commute to the tech center.

“The push for trade schools I noticed my senior year,” he said. “(They) were coming in and talking about saving money and getting you right out to work versus four-year colleges.”

Being debt-free was an attractive deal for Adkins. He’s working at the Technology Center now and is hoping to get into the training course soon.