Apprentice Carpenter Makes Journeymen Feel Uncomfortable

Times Staff Writer

For years, Jerry Levin thought he was too old to become a carpenter's apprentice. Now that he is one of the oldest apprentices in Los Angeles County, he has been jokingly dubbed a "problem child"--at age 48.

Levin says he decided that he wanted to become a carpenter about 12 years ago, after he helped a friend with some woodworking. But when Levin checked into a union apprenticeship program, he was told it was open only to people 23 or younger.

So he continued to sell jewelry to wholesalers for a living. Then, about three years ago, he met some carpenters who told him that the apprenticeship rules had changed because of age discrimination laws.

'Jumped at the Chance'

"When I found out I wasn't too old, I jumped at the chance," Levin said. He became an apprentice in October, 1985, and has been attending classes once or twice a week and trying to get hired on construction projects during the day.

He said he hopes that his late career switch will inspire other middle-aged people who feel boxed in at their jobs. "A lot of older people I know in their late 30s, early 40s feel there is no place for them to go," Levin said. "I'm living proof they're wrong."

He said that although "I don't let my age become a handicap . . . I felt like a fish out of water" at the first class. Most of the other aspiring carpenters were about 21, he said.

Levin, a Redondo Beach resident, is the second-oldest carpenter's apprentice in Los Angeles County, said Linda Ferguson, office manager of the county Carpenters Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee.

Levin said his instructor told him that as long as he listened, was willing to learn and was able to take instructions, he would get through the program. But the teacher also warned Levin that if he had a chip on his shoulder, "somebody would nail it there," Levin said.

Some Uncomfortable

Apprentices typically do the least-skilled work on construction projects, including fetching tools and supplies for journeymen carpenters. But Levin said some journeymen who are younger than he is seem uncomfortable giving him instructions.

"I'm there to learn," Levin said. "I want to learn as any apprentice should."

Levin said he has to take a lot of teasing. "One journeyman said on the job, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' and I said, 'A carpenter.' "

Levin is pretty sharp and doesn't often fall for the practical jokes that journeymen typically play on apprentices, said Trevor G. Cant, apprenticeship secretary for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local 1478, in Redondo Beach.

Non-Existent 'Stretcher'

Cant said journeymen will send an apprentice "out for a bucket of steam . . . or a board stretcher. There's no such thing as a board stretcher, but he doesn't know that."

To become a journeyman, an apprentice must have 600 hours on the job, complete seven projects and progress through eight levels of training, called periods.

Apprentices without jobs must sit in the local union hall each day from 7:30 to 9 a.m., waiting for a project supervisor to call with a job offer.

They usually pass the time playing cards or dominoes to keep from going stir crazy, Levin said.

Apprentices who do not get jobs have a free day and can drive to project sites and solicit employment. "It's not mandatory that you go out and drive around looking for work," Levin said, "but if you want to work, that's what you do."

Levin is a fifth-period apprentice, but because of an auto accident last year he spent nine months on disability and missed a year of classes. He said his doctor told him that because spinal nerve damage had impaired his left arm, he might have to forget about being a carpenter.

Arm Shrunk

"The doctor was talking negatively," Levin said. "My arm wasn't responding. It shrunk to about half the size of my right arm."

Levin wasn't prepared to switch careers again, however, and returned to work about three months ago. Work has been slow this spring for carpenters in general, he said, so he has not had many jobs.

"My attitude is, until I get out and do some heavy work and see for myself, I don't believe it," Levin said of his doctor's analysis.

Levin's arm problem and his age aren't the only things that make him a little different. He has a habit of wearing only one contact lens, causing him to squint, said Cant.

Although Levin said Cant likes to tease him about his age, Cant said: "His age isn't really relevant. . . . He's the oldest, Jewish, one-eyed carpenter I've got."

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