That's a fact of life for construction workers, who toil in a risky profession on changeable worksites with more variables than perhaps any other job. The industry is regularly confronted, and essentially threatened, by competition from low-bid contractors with a poorly trained, underpaid workforce who don't have a long-term stake in making the industry a better place.
The Michigan Construction Skilled Trades Conference held May 9 at the Lansing Center was an attempt to highlight the better side of the industry, and show and tell the general public, as well as invited educators and state lawmakers and their staff about how labor unions and their contractors have traditionally taken the high road over the past century. That means higher wage and benefit standards, a greater commitment to safety, and a generation-to-generation commitment to advance the industry with self-funded training programs.
"The organized construction industry in Michigan has a tremendous story to tell, and all too often, the right people aren't hearing our message," said Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin. "This conference was an attempt to get our message out to lawmakers and others in Lansing that together with our contractors, building trades professionals are up on the latest technologies, have training programs that are second to none, and really do some amazing things on the job. And while some in the industry are calling for greater government funding for vocational education after high school, we're over here telling them that labor and management have been self-funding our training programs for more than a century."
Setting the scene in a row in front of the state Capitol Building that day were tractor-trailers with hardware and training demonstrations by various union members. A few blocks away, all the building trades crafts and a number of contractor associations were set up inside the Lansing Center, telling their story with handouts, displays and hands-on demonstrations.
"I look at this as a half-skilled trades, half political event," said Keith Anderson, a business representative with the Michigan Painters District Council Local 1 and the union's political director. "The things you tell a young person looking for a career path or a lawmaker are the same. We offer an apprenticeship that starts you off with a pension, health care benefits, and we'll pay you while you're being trained. And when you graduate, you're not $100,000 in debt like you see with a lot of college graduates. That's a pretty good deal."
That was a deal that Dirk Kosloski, a fourth-year apprentice, couldn't refuse once he learned about the opportunities in a Local 7 sheet metal apprenticeship. He started later in life than most, he was 40 years old when he became an apprentice. Kosloski was one of the apprentices building toolboxes to hand out while working at the tinknockers booth at the conference.
"I graduate next week," Kosloski said. "I have enjoyed the whole experience. The money is good, and I have benefits for both my son and me - I never had that before. From where I was before, to where I am now, it changed my life."
Kathleen Szuminski, the career and technical education director for the Southwest Macomb Technical Education Consortium, said many more young lives could be changed if high schools had more resources to devote to education in the trades. "A lot of kids aren't necessarily suited to a college path, but they are suited to a four-year apprenticeship," she said, speaking in front of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 2 booth. She noted the difficulty school districts have in hiring educators knowledgeable about the trades, and the costs of maintaining workshops in schools. "It's very expensive," she said.
The building trades have always been supportive of expanding high school coursework to include more student exposure to the skilled trades. Boilermakers Local 169, for example, has for years sponsored its High School Invitational contest every spring, bringing in career center students to gauge their abilities in welding. A number of students have enjoyed boilermaker careers after placing well in the contest.
The trades have been less supportive of tax money for training programs being allocated to groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors, when building trades unions and their contractors are already doing that training without any help from the government. Moreover, if a petition drive or calls among conservative state lawmakers to eliminate the state's prevailing wage law come to fruition, the result is certain to undermine funding for labor-management-sponsored apprenticeship programs.
Dale Zorn, a 17th District Republican state senator from the Monroe/Lenawee area, has been one of the few lawmakers in the state GOP caucus who have voted in support of prevailing wage. He said the conference "is a great way to get acquainted with the skilled trades. We need to continue to give our youth an opportunity to this kind of career path."
State Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) is another GOP lawmaker who has supported prevailing wage and other labor issues. "I think it's the right place and the right time for what you are doing here," he said talking near an IBEW training directors booth. "I have been talking about the need for expanding and improving training since 2003, and that need is continuing to grow. I see programs here that contribute to good wages and good training, and consistently contribute to improving the next generation of workers, and they never go to the government for training money. That's the message here, and that you don't need government to solve problems. But people on our side (meaning state Republican lawmakers) don't always see the benefits or your programs, because of politics."