They need you and you need them, but so many obstacles keep the sides apart.
The United Association announced with fanfare in
early September that, working with the Department of the Interior/Indian
Affairs, they recruited 19 Native Americans to begin the UA’s Hybrid Welding
Program - a 16-week, fast-track program in which students attend class for
eight hours a day, 40 hours per week. The apprentices currently are in training
at UA Local 597 Pipe Fitters’ Training Center in Mokena,
The accelerated pace of this program draws attention to a severe shortage of
welders nationwide. The pipe trades are competing against every other welding
industry to replenish an aging and dwindling workforce.
It so happens that one of my golfing buddies is a recently retired Local 597
pipefitter/welder, who speaks of getting repeated requests from the union to
come back to work. He doesn’t want to, because after 40 years in a grueling job
he’s tired and feels like enjoying life to the hilt. Who can blame him? But the
repeated requests he gets from the union point to a dire situation in the pipe
trades’ supply-demand equation.
The UA’s achievement in bringing a group of Native Americans into the fold conjures
up conversations I’ve had with contractors who’ve served on JAT committees and
shared their frustrations with trying to recruit tomorrow’s plumbers and
Minority outreach is a given for today’s recruiters, simply as a matter of
arithmetic. Demographics and the civil rights laws don’t allow for the
lily-white workforce that characterized the construction trades of decades ago.
Part of today’s worker shortage stems from insularity that permeated not only
the construction trades, but most sectors of our society prior to the civil
rights revolution that began to tumble barriers a half-century
Many of the people who waggle fingers at the construction trades for its
history of discrimination practice hypocrisy on a grand scale. In the bad old
days, minorities had no easier time gaining entry to law, medicine, business,
journalism and most other white-collar professions. The legacy has been harsher
on the skilled trades, however, because they traditionally have sustained
themselves by sons following in their fathers’ footsteps.
A big reason African-Americans, Native Americans and Latinos are
under-represented in the pipe trades is because few of them had fathers,
grandfathers or uncles working in the trades to serve as role models - and to
grease their way into apprenticeship programs in which nepotism and connections
played as much a role as racial exclusion.
Anyway, that’s yesterday’s news. Racism and sexism are virtually nonexistent
among today’s pipe trades recruiters. They are desperate for warm bodies of any
hue and gender. Yet, despite a slew of minority outreach programs and lowering
of apprenticeship qualifications, progress can be measured in inches rather
than the miles that are needed.
Apprenticeship recruiters are quick to blame the educational establishment and
high school counselors for emphasizing a college track that relegates only
“leftover” students to the trades. There’s a lot of truth to that, but the root
causes clutch even deeper. The trades always have fed primarily on noncollegiate
“leftovers.” It’s just that the leftovers of yesteryear were not poisoned by so
many educational and social pathologies.
Few of today’s aging plumbers and pipefitters went to college and many never
graduated from high school. Yet most of them can read and handle arithmetic
better than the average high school graduate of today - especially those from
the inner city schools notorious for educational deficiencies.
Minorities who overcome it all are heavily courted by colleges and white-collar
recruiters anxious to fulfill affirmative action requirements. Then throw in a
wild card unknown to previous generations of pipe trades workers - drug
testing. Perhaps the greatest frustration experienced by today’s trade
recruiters is when otherwise qualified kids get interested in their pitch, only
to fall by the wayside in droves by the drug-testing requirement common to most
apprenticeship programs these days.
Recruiters typically report that well over half the kids who reach this stage
either fail the urinalysis or, more often, simply don’t bother to pee, knowing
they don’t have a chance of passing muster. This is not a phenomenon restricted
to minorities, but the blow falls heaviest on them because it closes one of the
few doors to well-paying careers available.
The UA is to be applauded for its efforts to bring those 19 Native Americans
into the industry. Now everyone has to figure out a way to attract the rest of
the 450,000 welders the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates will be needed by