Minority Outreach Frustrations
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, Ill.
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 fitters.
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 ago.
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 2014.