Wanted: More Hard Hats

The well-paying construction trades anticipate a shortage of workers, but hard work is a tough sell in this high-tech age.

Tacoma ironworker Derek Burfect had a tough childhood in Louisiana. "I've seen poverty—where people's houses are literally leaning sideways. I've lived poverty," says the lanky 27-year-old African American. He estimates that 80 percent of the friends he grew up with are convicted felons.

A few years ago, a newspaper advertisement led him to the Pacific Northwest Ironworkers and Employers, where union officials told him how much he could earn as a beginning apprentice. "They told me $16 an hour. I told 'em I could do it," he recalls, sitting in the union's Tacoma training center. Some apprentices are tying rebar together under an instructor's stopwatch, and others are welding iron, sending plumes of sparks into the air. Now in his third year of a four-year apprenticeship, Burfect will soon be making a journeyman's wage of $28.57 an hour, plus benefits that are some of the best in the nation.

"A lot of guys ask me, 'Derek, what you doing? You buyin' new cars, you buyin' a house, you got on nice clothes.'" He tells them, "Well, look bro, there's a trade I'm part of," and he offers to help get them in. "In the last two and a half years, I've told like 20 dudes." He shakes his head. "Out of all them dudes, not one of 'em ever came."

It's a riddle of the economy. Union journeymen earn $25 to $35 an hour in the construction industry, encompassing 15 trades that include ironworkers, carpenters, operating engineers, and laborers. "It's one of the very few places in America that's left where you can make a really decent living with your hands—more than a college graduate," says Bob Markholt, coordinator for Seattle Vocational Institute's building trades pre-apprenticeship program. And yet at a time of heightened concern over jobs going offshore, following decades of decline in the industrial sector that had long offered blue-collar workers family-wage jobs, the construction industry is agonizing over the lack of young people who are interested in its work.

"We're not recruiting enough people," laments John Littel, assistant to the executive secretary of the Seattle/King County Building and Construction Trades Council. The umbrella group represents approximately 20,000 local workers in construction-related unions. "The average age in the industry is close to 50. The majority of workers are going to retire in the next 10 years." Adds Dave Zemek, vice president of the Renton-based construction company Kiewit Pacific: "It's getting to the point where there's going to be more work out than there are people willing to do it."

IN RESPONSE, construction unions have launched an aggressive recruitment drive, searching for workers among high-school students, people leaving the military and welfare rolls, and recent immigrants.

Littel puts his industry's conundrum down to a shift in educational trends. "In the last two generations, we've seen a movement away from vocational training," he says. Gone, for the most part, are wood and metals shops in the high schools. Favored now is the kind of educational reform reflected in high-stakes tests like the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which stress academics and college preparation. The holy grail has become the high-tech field. "It's been almost a class status thing," Littel says. "A lot of parents don't want to see their kids going into the trades. They're portrayed as a place for nonachievers. What's happened is we've lost almost a whole generation."

Lee Newgent, president of the ironworkers union for Western Washington, frequently detects disdain for the trades when he travels to high schools on recruitment efforts. A couple of weeks ago, he attended a typical career fair. "All the college types and the military were in the big auditorium, and we're down the hall," he says. "So they get a full house, and I get four people." All the while, he stresses, "when I talk to a high-school class, I'm the highest-paid person in the entire building."

WHILE SCHOOLS are wary of tracking kids into vocational programs, the reality is that not every high-school student goes on to get a college degree. In Seattle, only 47 percent of adults over the age of 25 have at least a baccalaureate, according to the 2000 census—and that's a higher figure than for most major cities across the country.

Newgent, a beefy 44-year-old with a mustache and beard, bluntly hammers on that reality while giving a recent recruitment talk at North Mason High School on the Kitsap Peninsula. He's got the auditorium to himself today, perhaps because, as teachers there acknowledge, many kids in this rural enclave will not be going to college.

"Anybody know how much it costs to go to a major college?" he asks the couple hundred juniors before him. Between $15,000 and $55,000 a year, he tells them. "How many people have a college plan with financing to go with it?" he asks. Few raise their hands.

"I can tell you that an ironworker apprentice, brand new, who graduated high school last year, 19 years old, is eligible to make $18.57 an hour to start." (The beginning wage has gone up since Derek Burfect started.) "That first-year kid makes more money than a high-school teacher. You get a $2 raise every six months." He tells them the journeyman's wage and then reveals his own salary—$60 an hour. "If I get hurt today and fall off this stage, my pension and Social Security is worth over $5,000 a month. I might jump."

He gets laughs, and after his talk, kids ask for more information. A young man with a shaved head approaches the stage and tells Newgent that he plans to join the military after high school but that "this seems interesting for afterwards." Still, Newgent is not expecting any immediate applications out of this. "It's not for 2004, it's for 2009, 2010," he says.

THE AVERAGE AGE of beginning apprentices in the industry is 28. "Kids come out of high school and they bounce around for 10 years," says Littel of the Trades Council. "Then, all of a sudden, they get a spouse and kids and mortgage, and they need to make some real money." Or, Newgent says, they go to college and still end up making only $30,000 to $40,000 a year while trying to pay off student loans. Construction unions, which spend thousands of dollars training each apprentice, would like to get younger recruits with more working years ahead of them.

Yet construction unions also limit recruitment with a restrictive apprenticeship system. They let in only a certain number of newcomers, according to expected job openings. Since there are still plenty of 40- to 60-year-olds eager for those jobs, the number of a union's yearly apprenticeships can be as few as a dozen or two. "I haven't heard of an apprenticeship since I've been in this business for the last eight years that's gone begging," says Markholt of Seattle Vocational Institute. People who do make it into apprenticeships are supposed to work in addition to attending training classes. But there isn't always enough work to go around; while there might be a labor shortage 10 years from now, at the moment there's a labor glut. Many apprentices get discouraged and drop out. "That's our greatest challenge," Newgent says. "It's not getting them, it's keeping them."

Would-be construction workers can always look in the informal nonunion sector, where you can be hired without going through an arduous apprenticeship system. But the pay can be $15 an hour less.

ALSO WORKING against the industry's need for new blood is its closed, insular history. "It used to be a father, son, uncle, nephew type of industry," Littel says. Unions found ways of excluding minorities. In the 1970s, protests by African Americans led to a federal suit against several local construction unions, including the ironworkers. Though they were eventually ordered to diversify, their reputation of discrimination lingers.

But even white guys have had a hard time breaking into the industry. Cary Hayden is exactly the kind of guy that populates the construction industry. His grandfather was a construction worker, helping to build the Panama Canal. His father was a construction worker, too, who, with Hayden's uncle, bought the first D6 Caterpillar bulldozer on the West Coast. When Hayden got out of the Army in his early 20s, he went looking for a job at a construction site where his brother-in-law worked. If anybody should have had an in, it was him. But when he told the foreman he had just come from working with tanks in the Army, the foreman said, "Well, if I need a tank driver, I'll call you." He showed up anyway every day for a week, riding along with a dump truck operator, before the foreman agreed to hire him.

Now 46 and a manager for OMA Construction based on Beacon Hill, Hayden fondly reminisces about his career in construction while sitting in his pickup by a Sound Transit site in SoDo he's working on. The rail-thin figure in cowboy boots and a black cap turns off the Pink Floyd tape that's playing and flips through pictures of job sites that have taken him all across the country, including one in Alaska where it was 20 degrees below zero in April.

THAT'S THE OTHER thing about construction. It's good money, but it's backbreaking work, in often bitter conditions that many people simply can't stand. "I had a guy, a good friend of mine, that I got a job up there" in Alaska, Hayden says. "He got out of the plane, took one look around, and said, 'I can't do this.'" Other guys, he says, blanch when they dig a hole 25 feet deep and realize they don't want to go down it.

Back at the ironworkers training center in Tacoma, Derek Burfect says the first question people ask him when he's trying to interest people in the trade is: "Is it hard work?" He says, "I'm not going to lie to them. I tell them yes."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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