Learning the way to a big paycheck 218 apprentices schooled by Plumbers and Steamfitters local

$22.43 an hour awaits

'We're building a work force,' teacher explains

September 21, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Mere minutes into the new school year, and Al Clinedinst's students had no doubt about what to expect. Homework. Tests. Quizzes. They'd better know their stuff. They'd better be on time. And he meant business about the show and tell.

"If you fail the show and tell, you will not pass this class," Clinedinst warned from his desktop perch in Classroom 6, in a brick building at the edge of an industrial swath of Rosedale, north of the railroad tracks.

They might stumble over answers now. But someday, these third-year plumber/steamfitter apprentices might steal jobs away from even Clinedinst, a foreman with 24 years under his belt. That would be fine with him.

"I'm training you to be my competition," Clinedinst told members of his advanced electricity and refrigeration class, men ranging in age from early 20s to their 40s. "We're here to work together. It's important to me that you guys all come out of this class as winners."

To union members supporting the training school for the Plumbers and Steamfitters' Local Union No. 486, today's trainees are tomorrow's employees. Perhaps more importantly, they're fellow members of a brotherhood. But even more is at stake.

As Clinedinst put it during a break in his three-hour session, "If we turn out bad mechanics, we have a local full of bad mechanics. At first they hate me and say, 'You guys are like the Army.' But we're building a local. We're building a work force."

This year, 218 apprentices attend the school on 66th Street off Pulaski Highway. By day, trainees work for various union contractors. At night, six hours a week, they go to school.

With the classroom training, they get hands-on experience on equipment that looks to the untrained eye like discarded junk -- old window air conditioning boxes, rooftop units, boilers, compressors, ice makers -- anything that generates heat or cold air. Those who make it through five years to graduation -- about 80 percent do -- can apply for a license as a plumber/steamfitter mechanic. On the union scale, a journeyman receives $22.43 an hour.

A plumber/steamfitter installs and repairs pipes and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in places such as schools, hospitals, malls, the new Ravens stadium. The work can be physically demanding and dangerous. Jobs can also be mentally challenging, rewarding and fun, a point that instructor Rick Schreiber tried to drive home to first-year apprentices on the first day of their first class: customer relations.

"It's cool work," Schreiber told the trainees. "It's like being a kid again."

But it's more than just a job, he said, one in which professionalism can make the difference in getting and maintaining jobs.

"You've got to want to do this work," he said. "If you're just kicking around, and it's just a job to come to, this is not the place. You can't come in with an attitude. You'll have customers with attitudes, but what can you do? You can't fire the customer."

Eddie Wiseman of Overlea nodded in agreement from his desk. The 27-year-old had taken a pay cut to join the 1,400-member local in June, when he began working as an apprentice to mechanics at Giant Food Inc.

"It took a lot of humility, but the pay in the long run is better," said Wiseman, who said that in his former job as a building manager, "Sometimes I felt unappreciated being nonunion, just hired help. I wanted to be part of the best. It's a camaraderie, a brotherhood. We don't compete. We help each other because we want our union strong."

Apprenticeship has long been a union way of life. Typically, locals representing individual building trades, such as plumbing, carpentry and electrical work, have sponsored programs and run schools, turning out the next generation of journeymen.

"The apprenticeship is the backbone of the construction industry," said Raymond Jung, an executive vice president with Baltimore-based Poole & Kent Co., one of the nation's largest mechanical contractors, now working on the Ravens stadium. "A good solid apprentice program brings bright young people into the program and gives them proper training. If you look at the makeup of the foremen today, these were the bright apprentices of 10, 15 years ago."

As society has come to value white-collar work over hard-hat jobs, recruiting has become more difficult. Add to that a decline in union memberships generally since the early 1980s. In the building trades, the percentage of work being done by nonunion contractors has grown from about 55 percent to 60 percent in the mid-1970s to about 75 percent to 80 percent now, in part because of the higher wages demanded by the unions, said Herbert R. Northrup, professor emeritus of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

But some in the unions believe that their time has come.

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