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Southern California Job Market : A Special Report On Employment Trends : Industries & Occupations : Construction : Good Wages And Plenty Of Jobs Available For Skilled Workers

September 20, 1987|KEITH LOVE | Times Staff Writer

Sam Freeman has this advice for anyone who wants to work in construction: "I say do it. It's a great way to make a living."

Freeman, a muscular 27-year-old from Northridge, was studying the elaborate illustrations in a carpentry textbook at the apprenticeship school in North Hollywood that is run by his union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

"My father and grandfather are carpenters," Freeman said, "and I went to college to be an engineer. But then I thought about all those 9-to-5 days inside an office and decided I wanted to be a carpenter. The great thing about construction is you work outdoors and you can take off a couple of months if you decide that's what you want to do. There's a lot of freedom."

Freeman is completing a four-year program at the carpenters' apprenticeship school, where intensive, two-week training sessions alternate with on-the-job construction work at downtown high-rises, residential subdivisions and other sites.

Soon Freeman will be a "journeyman" and will know how to do everything from laying foundations to hanging steel and glass "skins" on high-rises to putting roofs on three-bedroom ranch houses.

He will also make a very good wage. Kashiff Ali, coordinator of the North Hollywood school, said that most journeymen carpenters in Southern California work at least nine months a year and earn at least $31,000.

"Most of them make more than $40,000 a year," Ali said.

There are similar apprenticeship schools all over California for more than a dozen other skilled crafts, including welding, plumbing, bricklaying and electrical wiring.

And new journeymen in these crafts can find plenty of work in California, according to industry experts.

"The demand for these skills is increasing every year," said Fran Schreiberg of the California Building Trades Council. "In 1986, there were 500,000 construction jobs in the state, an all-time high, and that's 50% higher than 20 years ago."

In Los Angeles County, the construction industry has enjoyed record years since coming out of the 1982 recession, and the boom is continuing this year in some categories.

In 1987, for example, residential building is up from 1986--which was a very good year--according to Ben Bartolotto of the Construction Industry Research Board in Burbank.

"Alterations and additions and new single-family homes are helping offset a decline in the building of apartments," Bartolotto said.

He said also that the building of shops and restaurants, a category known as "store building," continues to provide a lot of jobs.

"Right now, the jobs in residential construction are in Palmdale, Lancaster, the Santa Clarita Valley and, to some extent, the eastern San Gabriel Valley," said Dick Wirth, executive director of the Governmental Affairs Council of the Building Industry Assn.

"Long Beach is a very good area for construction jobs because of the redevelopment that is going on there. And there are a lot of construction jobs connected with Metro Rail, of course. Also, the planned improvements at Hyperion (the city waste-treatment facility) should provide a lot of jobs."

Jack Kaiser of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce said: "Orange County is a hot area right now in construction, both single-family homes and commercial building. In the first quarter of 1987, four of the five top areas--building permits valued at $20 million or more--were in Orange County. In the second quarter, the top five areas were Los Angeles International Airport, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Century City and Santa Ana."

But Bartolotto and Wirth warned that anyone seeking jobs in construction and the skilled crafts in Los Angeles County should also be aware that high-rise construction is declining for the first time in years, in part because a long boom cycle is ending, but also because of increasing efforts to limit growth.

For example, Proposition U, approved by Los Angeles city voters last November, could greatly curtail high-rise office and apartment construction. It is designed to reduce by one-half the maximum allowable size of new buildings on about 70% of the commercial and industrial property in the city.

Ken Willis, executive vice president of the BIA, noted that there are ballot initiative drives in Riverside and Orange counties to limit residential growth.

"If I were looking for a job in construction, one thing I would do is watch the community planning process very closely," Wirth said.

All of those interviewed agreed that developing a skill is the key to getting good paying jobs in construction, and Wirth said, "Your best chance of getting a good job in construction is to join a union."

To join a union for one of the skilled trades, you have to have the promise of a job from a contractor, explained Bill Luddy, spokesman for the Los Angeles County District Council of Carpenters.

"If you go to the union local in your area, they will have a list of projects where they are hiring," Luddy said.

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