A union bridge to college

A union bridge to college

Alliance: A Rosedale resident aims to join a growing movement linking the building trades and community colleges.

April 21, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Paul Griffin does not really need a college degree.

The Rosedale resident, 26, is in his fifth and final year of apprentice training with Local 486 of the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters. He earns $20.38 an hour at his full-time plumbing job with Northern Bay Environmental Systems, his rate will go up to $26.39 after he gets his journeyman's card and he and his wife just bought a house.

Yet Griffin's good prospects haven't kept him from plotting an unconventional return to college. If all goes as planned, Griffin will be a pioneer in a growing national movement: an alliance between the building trades and community colleges, whereby union apprentices and graduates of nonunion training schools can get college credit for previous work.

The details are being worked out, but Griffin expects to be able to collect as many as 30 credits from his training to put toward an associate's degree in construction management at the Community College of Baltimore County.

Combined with credits received in three years at Morgan State University, he will be more than halfway to the 60 needed for an associate's degree when he starts classes at CCBC next fall. Ideally, he says, the degree will give him credibility in the business community and help fulfill his goal of owning his own company.

"I know I don't want to work with my body my whole life - this is a good trade, and it's been good to me, but when you're 40 you don't want to be climbing a ladder or raising pipe," said Griffin at the Local 486 training school in Rosedale. "So I'm trying to prepare myself for that, so I can slide myself into an office when the time comes."

This kind of thinking has the United Association and other building trades unions and contractors' groups around the country trying to make it possible for workers to get community college credit for the training they've received.

In recent years, the building trades have struggled to recruit qualified workers partly because guidance counselors and parents encourage high school graduates to attend college, while playing down building trades. And many students who are made aware of opportunities in the building trades shy away because they don't like the idea of spending the rest of their life doing taxing manual labor.

Establishing a link with the community colleges gives the building trades a way to overcome these obstacles to recruitment: Unions can argue that apprenticeship programs and college are not mutually exclusive, and that joining the trades doesn't necessarily mean a lifetime spent working in the field.

"What I want to do is open the door for these guys to move on with their education," said Local 486 training director Allen B. Clinedinst III. "Some of them have really high expectations for themselves, and they want to get the paper so they can move into positions more smoothly."

Judy Loar, CCBC director of manufacturing, apprentice and technical training services, said the college is granting credits for outside training to workers from, among others, the electricians and carpenters unions and Associated Builders and Contractors. In general, Loar said, workers can transfer up to 30 credits from their off-campus training toward a 60-credit general studies associate's degree, thereby saving roughly $200 in tuition for each three-credit course they don't have to take.

For the majority of workers who would rather get a construction technology degree, she said, previous training generally will count for a few of their required construction classes, plus a few required electives.

The college considers students on a case-by-case basis, to make sure their training merits college credits, she said. At Local 486, apprentices take 250 hours a year of classes in such areas as welding, drafting and gas fitting, but other training programs are less rigorous.

"We do not want to dilute our degree programs," Loar said. "This is not an automatic thing."

For unions, this has meant having to negotiate more college bureaucracy than they had expected, but union officials are trying to be patient, said the UA's Clinedinst. And those planning on taking advantage of the transfer option say they look forward to taking the courses.

Andreas Genemans, a fourth-year apprentice at Local 486, said his classes in computer-assisted drafting at the Catonsville campus of CCBC have made him the second-fastest of 14 draftsmen at his job. And a public speaking course he took as a required elective helps him interact with co-workers.

At the same time, he said, an associate's degree would hold symbolic value for him.

"A lot of people say they know things, but it helps to have a piece of paper to back it up, to get you over the next guy," said Genemans, 32, a graduate of Hammond High School in Columbia who joined Local 486 after being laid off from an instrumentation job five years ago.

For Griffin, the three semesters he plans to take at CCBC after graduating from Local 486's training are one step in the mission he's been on since dropping out of college five years ago. A graduate of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, he spent three years at Morgan State "messing around, missing class, stuff like that" and "being a little bit too drawn by the women" on campus.

He was at his night manager job at a gas station when he heard an ad for Local 486 on the radio. He passed the entrance examination, and he hasn't stopped since. Having once been adrift, he said, he's doubly focused on getting everything he can out of the union experience - including college credits.

"People say you don't need a degree, but a degree always stops people from saying something stupid about you," Griffin said. "I'm never saying `I'm finished.' I'm only 26, and I've got a long way to go from here."

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