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As Demand Builds, Ohio Carpenters Train 2,000

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Tony DiTommaso didn’t have to wander far in choosing a career path.

His father was a carpenter while he and his three brothers all went through the apprenticeship program and became journeymen in that trade.

Today, DiTommaso’s nephew Joe, the third generation of the family to enter the craft, works with his father’s company, DiTommaso & Son Construction.

“He’s a third-year apprentice,” DiTommaso, president and senior representative of Local 171 of the Carpenters & Joiners union, says of his nephew. And, he’s one of the younger recruits to come on board in the building trades, which is working in partnership with private contractors to encourage young people throughout the region to consider the trades as a rewarding career move.

“Right now, we’re booming,” DiTommaso says. “We have about 70 or 80 apprentices with our local.”

It’s a significant number that shows no signs of slipping, DiTommaso notes, given the heavy volume of construction work on the books in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. “In the past quarter, we brought in 17 new apprentices in Youngstown alone,” he reports. “When I first got into the trade in 1987, they were taking nine that entire year.”

Each year, apprenticeship programs prime the pump with talent in both the construction and industrial trades. However, manufacturers and builders today lament the same challenge: the lack of qualified workers in the labor pool and the overall lack of interest among young people to pursue a career in the trades.

The Carpenters’ union is doing well, DiTommaso relates. “We’ve got about 2,000 apprentices across the state in four regional schools,” he says.

Local 171 is part of the northeastern area, which encompasses 27 counties in this quadrant of Ohio. Apprentices in this region are trained at the Ohio Carpenter’s Joint Apprenticeship & Training Center in Richfield. A joint committee composed of union members and contractors oversee the program.

“About a $1 million investment goes into our program every year to keep up with new training and skills,” DiTommaso says.

Carpentry is no longer merely using a hammer to pound nails into lumber, he says. Instead, it requires high aptitude in mathematics and today encompasses skills such as welding, normally a trade associated with metalworking. “We’re looking for new welders right now,” he says, “because we do some fabricating to make a part for machinery that the contractor is placing.”

DiTommaso says the Carpenters’ JATC offers more than 100 courses to train apprentices. The training center in Richfield houses a mathematics and computer lab and each apprentice receives significant on-the-job training. “There has to be at least 17 weeks of training each year,” he notes, plus a 40-hour workweek each quarter of the four-year program.

The first two years are the toughest, DiTommaso says. Of the 17 apprentices brought in during the second quarter, he’s hoping that 12 remain by year three. “It’s all about getting the guys in there and getting them used to what is required,” he says.

Training top-notch talent is imperative for the building trades and their employers, observes Howard Agueda, associate services director for The Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, whose members consist of area contractors.


Pictured: Howard Agueda, associate services director for The Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.

“What we need are more good-quality candidates in the apprenticeship programs,” Agueda says. It’s even more imperative in this economic climate that contractors have a strong pool of skilled talent because many of the union halls are empty this robust construction season.

Those willing to commit to learning a trade or skill should consider an apprenticeship program, Agueda advises, adding that a college education isn’t for everyone. “The contractors and unions have invested their time and money in making instructors available, and to provide all the resources it takes to continue these programs,” he says. In turn, the students “have to put forth the time to go to classes.”

Agueda and The Builders and the unions this year started an outreach effort that has connected them with area schools to direct students’ attention to a career in the building trades. “We’re working with high schools, trade schools and guidance counselors,” he says. “We see it as a viable option to consider.”

A career in the building trades is rewarding financially and emotionally, Agueda says. First, the pay is good. The most recent negotiated hourly wage for a journeyman bricklayer is $27.94 an hour, an ironworker can expect $28.06 an hour, while an operating engineer earns $32.92 an hour. Add in a benefits package and the trades pay closer to $70 per hour.

“It’s an outstanding opportunity to have a worthwhile career and be able to maintain a standard of living for your family,” he says. “And, you’re learning from the experts in the field.”

Interest in apprenticeships varies based on the trade, Agueda notes. At present, Ironworkers Local 207 has 59 apprentices, Roofers Local 71 has accepted 25, Laborers International Local 125 in Youngstown has brought on 22 apprentices, while its counterpart in Warren, Laborers Local 935, has seven apprentices signed on this year.

Good numbers, but many in the trades foresee a labor shortfall.

“We’ve got some good kids, just not enough applicants,” says Kevin Rogers, training coordinator for Sheet Metal Workers Local 33.

The union and contractors have turned not only to the trade schools and the high schools, but the internet to get the word out. “A lot of kids don’t read the paper, so we’ve switched to the internet,” he says.

Skills such as mathematics, welding, measuring and plasma cutting are all developed and honed in the metalworkers’ apprenticeship program, Rogers says. “Kids come out of the program with a D-1 structural welding certification or D-2, which is mig welding,” he says.

Rogers says the first quality he looks for in an applicant is aptitude. “They might not know a lot at first, but mechanical aptitude is important to me,” he says.

So far this year, the metalworkers have taken on three apprentices, a number Rogers says he’d like to double. Those who complete the program find work in the HVAC industry.

“We have a high graduation rate,” Rogers says. “Those who get in usually stick with it.”

Other initiatives underway to boost enrollment in apprenticeships in the industrial trades have come through organizations such as the Greater Oh-Penn Manufacturing Network. Two years ago, Oh-Penn was awarded a $2.9 million grant to help offset the costs employers across 14 counties in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania incur in employee apprenticeship programs.

Since it was implemented Oct. 1, 2015, the grant has helped 45 incumbent workers, trained 99 others, and led to the registration of 43 new apprentices in the machining trades.

“We’re happy with the progress,” says Jessica Borza, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, a partner in the Oh-Penn Collaborative. “We have many more in the pipeline and we should have more in the fall.”

Last year, the grant program targeted apprenticeships in the machining trades, but this year it’s being expanded to include programs in industrial maintenance. The goal for the close of the program’s second year is to bring another 50 apprentices on board.

“We should be in good shape,” Borza says.

Pictured at top: As part of their apprenticeships, Bob Schweiss, Danny Zuhosky and Joe DiTommaso Jr. Work at Ursuline High School. Throughout the region, the number of apprentices is rising.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.