Demand Climbs for Apprentices in Skilled Trades

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For two consecutive years, a member of Ironworkers union Local 207 in Youngstown won the Great Lakes District Council competition – a two-day event that tests the skills of ironworker apprentices.

On June 3, Tanner Stellmar scaled a 35-foot structural steel I-beam in seconds, pressed a buzzer at the top that stopped a timer, and narrowly ensured another victory for Local 207.

Make that three consecutive years.

Stellmar’s column climb was the final event of the competition. More symbolically, his effort is a capstone that closes four years of hard work through the trade’s joint apprenticeship program, marking his transition to journeyman status.

The top three apprentices at the district competition are Branden Halaja, Tanner Stellmar and Brandon Kopko.    

Four years earlier, Stellmar was employed at a restaurant when a friend informed him about opportunities with the Ironworkers. “I found out about it and loved it,” he says. “There’s something different every day. You’re always on your toes.”

Stellmar is the very personification of what the building trades are looking for, as contractors and organized labor strive to recruit young people.

Apprentice Pipeline

Building and expanding apprenticeship programs is challenging. Initiatives within the region’s career centers, workforce development organizations, outreach efforts from both contractors and the skilled trades – such as the Skilled Trades Expo every September – have all heightened the profile of apprenticeship and trade programs.

Still, the need for applicants is unrelenting.

“There’s a lot of good out there,” says Gary Hartman, association services director for the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. The Association represents union signatory contractors throughout the region. “There’s a lot of focus on career opportunities. The career centers are doing a great job, the ESC’s [education service centers] are doing a good job.”

In Mahoning County, approximately 500 high school students have enrolled in pre-apprenticeship programs, Hartman says. This program, jointly launched in 2021 by the trade unions, The Builders, and the ESC of Eastern Ohio, is intended to cover 14 school districts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.  Trumbull County is in its early stages of launching its program, he says.

Just how many of these students would actually pursue the trades for a career is uncertain, Hartman says.  Out of the 350 students who participated in the pre-apprenticeship program during its first year, approximately 50 declared they would enter the building trades after high school, according to Business Journal files.

“We’re seeing kids from the program coming directly to the trades,” Hartman says.

The impact of these efforts is mixed. Indeed, enrollment in joint apprentice programs affiliated with Builders Association members has increased over the past 10 years, Hartman says. In 2013, for example, the crafts affiliated with The Builders reported 222 enrolled in apprenticeship programs, according to statistics provided by the organization.

That number had increased to 430 by 2022.

Yet the 2022 figure represents the lowest participation rate in five years.  In 2018, The Builders reported 440 apprentices; in 2019, 475; in 2020, 455; and in 2021, 445 were enrolled in apprenticeship programs.

These numbers do not include the Plumbers & Pipefitters union and the two International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers locals in Boardman and Warren.

Most likely, the factors driving this recent trend are beyond the control of the builders or the trades, Hartman says.

“I wish there was one thing you could attribute it to,” he says. “I think it’s an accumulation of things – COVID was a big factor. Also, there’s the decline in younger population, and that’s clear all across the region.”

At the same time, some school districts are emphasizing higher education over a career in the trades, he says.

Hartman says it’s too early to assess apprenticeship enrollment for 2023.

As it stands, participation is not keeping pace with the rate of attrition in the trades, Hartman says. The average age of journeymen is between 46 and 47.  As this group nears retirement, it will eliminate a significant number of experienced craftsmen in the field.  “It will start to hurt us in five to 10 years – the loss of experience as they retire,” he says.

That’s led many of the crafts to loosen protocols such as accepting applications and performing aptitude testing for prospective apprentices earlier in the year or even each month. “We’re more focused on training that person,” Hartman says.

Those who do select the trades as a career stand to earn high wages with a strong benefits package. “It’s a great career with a good salary,” Hartman says, noting a starting average wage of $19 per hour as an apprentice, to journeyman wages that average $30 an hour – $50 to $56 per hour when factoring in benefits.

Ed Emerick, training director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 64 in Boardman, has also observed that the number of apprentice prospects in general has decreased over the last two decades.

“Twenty years ago, 400 people might apply and 200 might get interviews,” he says. “There was a larger pool of people.”

Today, Local 64 receives approximately 150 applications each year – most from applicants under the age of 30 – from which 60 to 70 are interviewed. Between 15 and 20 are accepted into the program’s two classes, he says. “That hasn’t changed much.  We get a lot of people who apply, but we’re always looking for the most qualified candidates.”

Still, the union is holding its own.  “We haven’t seen a peak or decline in interest,” Emerick says.

Approximately 65 are enrolled in Local 64’s residential and commercial apprentice programs. The residential apprentice program is three years; the commercial training five years. The programs also offer associate degrees.

Testing Their Mettle

Youngstown’s Ironworkers and signatory contractors first developed their joint apprentice program in 1952, says Matt Sargent, training coordinator. The goal is to build a pipeline of talent through training programs that are governed by a joint apprenticeship committee, half of which is staffed by contractors/managers and the other half by union representatives. “Labor and contractors need to work together, or it’s not going to work at all,” he says.

The four-year apprenticeship covers a range of disciplines such as steel erecting, rigging, welding, oxy-fuel burning, rebar installation, metal building construction and mill maintenance. Course work involves 816 classroom hours and 5,400 hours of on-the-job training.

After four years of instruction and field training, the state of Ohio mandates that journeymen candidates take a final exam that has both written and hands-on skills components.

To address this, the Ironworkers devised a competition that scores apprentices’ written exams and their hands-on knowledge, Sargent says.  “They have to be able to demonstrate they can competently do this stuff,” he says.

At the recent competition, Local 207’s Stellmar was among 14 participants representing seven Ironworkers locals. All of the competitors had recently passed their apprenticeship written and skills exams within their local. The two best from each union hall were invited to compete in the event, which this year was held at the Ironworkers’ Joint Apprentice Training Center in Boardman.

The top two winners of the Great Lakes District contest advance to the international competition, scheduled for September 2024 in Chicago.

“Youngstown is a small local,” Sargent says. “But we do very good at these competitions.” Last year, a Local 207 Ironworker placed fifth among 86 entrants from the United States and Canada, he says.

Ironworkers often deal with structural steel and machinery that could weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds, Sargent says.  An ironworkers’ proficiency in rigging – that is, the controlled lifting and moving of heavy components – is critical to not just the job, but for the safety of the workers.

“We take training very seriously,” he says. “These are people you’ll be risking your life with.”

The two apprentices with the highest scores from Local 207 – Stellmar and Michael Terlecky – advanced to the district competition.  On the first day, June 2, the 14 tradesmen were tested on welding and oxy-fuel torch burning skills, says Sam Williams, a joint apprentice instructor. The following day, the contest moved to rigging, rebar ties and vertical climbing.

“They score according to different categories,” Williams says.  The welding and oxy-fuel burns, for example, are graded based on the quality of the weld. The climbing and rebar tying, on the other hand, are timed contests.

“This is how we gauge how we’re doing as instructors,” Williams says.  “All of this is out of pride. No one is getting paid to be here,” he says of the competition.

Local 207’s Terlecky says his decision to enter the trades proved a life-changing choice.  “I knew a little about it before going in, but after I started, I fell in love with it.”

During his apprenticeship, Terlecky has worked on major projects such as construction of the Lordstown Energy Center plant in Lordstown and the building that houses NLMK Pennsylvania’s new walking beam furnace in Farrell.  “It’s something to take pride in – it’s interesting work, ” he says.

The Great Lakes District Council comprises locals from Detroit, Cleveland, Canton, Toledo, Youngstown, Pittsburgh and Wheeling, W.Va., says Greg Christy, council president.  Each year, a different union hall hosts the district competition, and this year it was Local 207’s turn. In 2024, Local 17 in Cleveland will host the event.

Christy says the demand for apprentices has never been greater across the entire district, as all the regions are bustling with construction projects.

“Work is tremendous right now and demand for ironworkers is tremendous,” he says.

Much of this work is driven by new projects in the electric-vehicle space, with Lordstown’s Ultium Cells battery-cell manufacturing plant among the first in the region. “There are four [EV-related] plants under construction within our council – two more to start,” he says.

As such, Ironworkers locals in the district are testing applicants monthly, sometimes weekly.

“We have 100 apprentices and we’re signing up every day,” says Anthony Deley, business manager for Local 207. “We’re signing two more next week. We need the workforce.”  Twenty ironworkers graduated from the latest class, he says.

Several years ago, Local 207 carried about 40 apprentices, he says. “We’re at 100 and that’s not enough. We’re looking at five to 10 years of this area still booming. Cleveland and Pittsburgh are feeling the same.”

Pictured at top: Tanner Stellmar climbs to the top as apprentices from three states compete in an Ironworkers contest.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.