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Apprentices: Building Their Careers From the Ground Up

October 26, 1986|HARRY BERNSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

Bored by your 9-to-5 office job? Just out of school, or about to leave, and looking for a career? Want a challenging job that lets you spend more time outdoors than in, and pays wages that are substantially higher than most Americans earn?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions you just might want to work in the construction industry, which is busy in Southern California these days.

But employers want skilled workers, not just eager ones. Probably the best and perhaps the most certain way to get into the industry is through the official, state-regulated apprenticeship program.

Apprenticeships, in which a skilled craftsman imparts his knowledge to a young pupil, have been around for centuries. Today, they often provide a means of entering a well-paid career without years of higher education.

But the jobs aren't easy, and learning the skills that are in demand can take at least four years, or as much time as it takes to get a college degree. Sometimes it is at least as hard to get into an apprenticeship program as it is to gain admission to a university, but unlike college courses, once you become an apprentice you get paid while you learn.

California's 47-year-old, state-administered apprentice program has more than 34,000 enrollees and is the largest in the country, followed by New York with about 27,000 apprentices. More than half of California's 409 programs are in construction trades. Apprenticeships are usually run jointly by union and management representatives under state supervision. There are also some single-company programs such as those at Lockheed and Douglas Aircraft, and even a few at non-union companies such as Hewlett-Packard.

Apprenticeships are not the only way to break into the construction industry, of course. For example, some youngsters with a family background in a trade start learning the skills as early as elementary school. They gradually learn their craft from family members or friends and later use those same connections to find a contractor who will hire them.

Vocational education provides another route. There are an estimated 1 million youths and adults taking some kind of government-financed vocational education and training in Southern California, many of them aimed at eventual construction employment. Both public schools and community colleges teach a wide variety of crafts, and if you've done well, you can start knocking on employment-office doors when your schooling ends.

But industry leaders agree that job applicants who have gone through the apprenticeship system have the best chance of being accepted on the job.

The scores of construction industry apprentice programs vary widely from craft to craft, but all require that you pass an aptitude test, either devised by the state or developed by management and union representatives. The entry age is 18, and most require a high school diploma or its equivalent. Information about the various programs and their requirements is available from local offices of the California Apprenticeship Standards Division.

Gail Jesswein, chief of the state Division of Apprenticeship, outlines the way the apprenticeship program works for one well-paid sector of the industry--electricians:

First, you have to know when to apply. Unlike colleges, which accept applications every year, the electrical apprenticeship program accepts them only once every two years. The next "window of opportunity" will not occur until the fall of 1987.

When applying, you must present a birth certificate and a high school diploma, and have had at least one year of algebra. If you meet those requirements, you are given a written test in basic math on a pass-fail basis.

Each candidate then has an interview with union and management representatives, in the case of electricians with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Assn., respectively. This is designed to find out if you are mechanically inclined and genuinely interested in a career as an electrician.

About 70% of the applicants pass the written and oral tests. Their names are ranked by number based on the oral interview, and selection of apprentices is made starting from the top of the list. Of 1,600 applicants, only about 200 are eventually accepted, said Jesswein, who is also former head of the electrical program in Los Angeles County.

To become a journeyman, a process usually lasting about four years, an apprentice must have a minimum of 7,200 hours of on-the-job training, plus 200 hours a year in classroom courses.

At a job site, electrical contractors who participate in the program must have one journeyman electrician for the first apprentice hired, and then three journeymen for each apprentice after that. The ratio is designed to prevent an employer from hiring more apprentices than master craftsmen, a practice that might be tempting because apprentices earn less and thus lower the contractor's labor costs. Apprentices earn about 35% of journeymen's pay in the first year of the program.

But the designation "journeyman electrician" is a valuable goal. It's a highly skilled job that pays $23 an hour, plus more than $5 an hour in a host of fringe benefits, including medical, hospital, dental and vision care, and pension under terms of the current International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' contract with the industry.

Further information can be obtained from the Electrical Industry Joint Apprenticeship Training Trust at 515 S. Avenue 19, Los Angeles 90031. The phone number is (213) 221-5881.

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