Photo By: April Batholomew of The Morning Call Newspaper
Article by Scott Kraus, reporter of The Morning Call Newspaper
ALLENTOWN, PA — For years, Kevin Lott would walk into Lehigh Valley area high schools and technical schools with a pretty compelling pitch on the advantages of a career as a union carpenter.
The job offered good wages, generous benefits and the chance to learn valuable skills.
With the students' interest piqued, Lott would be forced to mention that to join the union, they'd have to complete apprenticeship work at the nearest training center. Until very recently, that was off Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia.
"The students, when I told them they had to drive to Philly, would groan," said Lott, former president of the Lehigh Valley carpenters union, Local 167 of the Northeast Region Council of Carpenters.
That's no longer true, with the recent opening of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters-Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters' new apprenticeship training center in Allentown. Now union apprentices can complete the four-year program in the Lehigh Valley, at a converted Victaulic facility on Vultee Street.
That's a huge advantage, and likely to encourage more local job-seekers to consider the carpentry trade, said Jeff Holzheimer, 24, a second-year apprentice carpenter who lives in Bethlehem and is now training at the newly opened training center.
Last year, he paid hundreds of dollars in turnpike tolls and drove hundreds of miles to and from training in Philadelphia. "This saves a ton of money and time," he said.
The facility gives Local 167 a training center of its own to help recruit new members to go with its existing and significant ties to the region's political, community and business leaders, said Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters Executive Secretary/Treasurer John Ballantyne.
It's also sign that as a region, the Lehigh Valley continues to establish its own distinct identity on the state's economic stage. For years, Lehigh Valley's carpenters' local was an offshoot of the Philadelphia branch of the union. Now its a standalone part of the six-state Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters.
Five years in the making, the $1.6 million training facility was financed with a combination of state funding through a Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program matching grant and training funds contributed by union members and their employers.
Union representatives joined local politicians and business leaders at the Vultee Street site on Thursday for a formal ribbon-cutting. The training center opened three months ago.
When fully up and running, the facility will accommodate about 80 apprentices at various stages of the training process, in addition to holding training courses in specific carpentry-related skills for more experienced union members, known as journeymen.
The four-year apprenticeship program requires participants to complete 900 hours of classroom instruction and 8,000 hours of on-the-job-training to obtain journeyman status.
The training center includes a large, open training area where carpenters can practice key skills, two classrooms for learning theory such as blueprint reading and a welding training area that includes a high-tech virtual reality welding training unit.
When a trainee straps on the virtual reality welding mask, he or she is treated to a three-dimensional rendering of the view a welder would see through the small visor window. A computerized welding gun linked to the simulator allows the user to practice welds, without throwing actual sparks.
The computer analyzes the result offering advice on speed and technique.
It provides a huge savings in the metal rods that are used in welding, said trainer Fran Schlenner. They go for about $100 a pound. It's also a safer way for novices to learn the basics.
Sen. Pat Browne, who was on hand for the ribbon-cutting, said that while business leaders still cite the state and local tax and regulatory environment as a concern, the presence of a well-trained workforce has risen to equal importance to the region's economic competitiveness in the future.
"Nothing is more important than a facility like this to the future of our economy," Browne said.
Construction firms in some regions of the country are confronting a looming shortage of skilled tradespeople caused by workers leaving the business during the recession, a spate of retirements, and a recent increase in construction project demand.
In the Lehigh Valley, the number of construction jobs was flat at 12,000 between 2015 and 2016 according to the Associated General Contractors of America.
Ballantyne said that throughout the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters' five-state territory, labor demand is high, with 95 percent of members working at any given time.