Hammered by Modern Times, Apprenticeships Have Changed : Labor: Fewer offspring are learning their parents' trades but the programs are training more minorities.


Skilled workers in the construction industry were once referred to as the "aristocrats of labor," so it isn't surprising that in the early part of this century most of them successfully encouraged their children--almost always boys--to learn their trades.

The pay was, and still is, relatively good, although the work is often interrupted by everything from bad weather to economic downturns.

But construction work, while strenuous, often is more satisfying to people than routine office jobs. And the skilled crafts are frequently regarded as an excellent alternative to jobs in factories, mines or mills--and more obtainable than jobs requiring college degrees.

Like workers in less-attractive jobs, more and more of those in the construction trades are urging their children to go to college, hoping that higher-paying professions will provide a way up and out of the middle class.

No one seems to have precise figures, but it is estimated that during the first half of the 1900s, more than half of the sons of skilled trades workers followed their fathers' careers. Those percentages have dropped substantially in recent years and now range from as little as 15% in some crafts to 40% in others.

Family-oriented factory and office workers often talk of their determination to help their children find better, more interesting jobs than their parents by urging them to continue their education past high school.

That thinking, employment experts say, is more prevalent in construction than in the past, but it is far from universal.

In the construction field in Southern California, for instance, it is estimated that only 15% to 20% of young workers in carpentry apprentice programs are children or close relatives of journeymen carpenters. The same estimate is made for apprentices in electrical construction jobs.

But the generation-to-generation tradition seems to be more extensive in some other trades, such as operating engineers and sheet-metal jobs, where up to 40% of apprentices are following a family member into the trade.

A fortunate side benefit of the tradition of young workers following their parents' career paths is that it helps hold families together. Their common interest tends to bond fathers, sons and, to a slightly greater degree than in the past, daughters. That bonding can unite entire families.

Anthony Wright, 21, an apprentice carpenter, says he tried working in a supermarket after finishing high school, but was drawn to carpentry by the career of his father, Roy, a journeyman carpenter.

As a youngster, he worked with his dad, and the fact that they share the same career has helped keep their family together. "We have a lot in common that we didn't have when I was in the supermarket," the younger Wright says.

Going through a formal apprentice training program is probably the most effective way of learning a skilled trade. That system dates back to 11th-Century Europe, and the basic concept is still used today.

Centuries ago, craft guilds were made up of several families, with the master craftsmen often related to each other as well as to their young apprentices.

The guilds set standards for the quality of work and the skills required for apprentices to reach a higher status. The apprentices usually lived in the homes of the master craftsmen, earning only room and board. Their training lasted from five to nine years before they were deemed skilled enough to become journeymen and begin earning a wage.

Those general rules are still followed, with some major exceptions. Apprentices now are paid partial wages during a training period that usually spans four to five years.

Many skilled craftspeople have long regarded their jobs as part of the inheritance they pass on to family members--not unlike owners of companies who pass their enterprises on to their children.

But that attitude of ownership of a job resulted in widespread discrimination, especially in the building trades. White men helped their sons get into formal apprenticeship programs sponsored by employers and unions and supervised by state and federal governments. Minorities and women were rarely welcomed or even accepted.

Much of that changed for minorities with the passage of civil rights laws beginning in the 1960s. Though discrimination still exists, minorities made up 42% of California's 47,828 apprentices last year--22% were Latinos, 10% were blacks, and the rest were divided among other minority groups.

Women are not doing as well. They make up only about 12% of all apprentices in California. Judith Kurtz, an attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco group trying to increase the number of women in construction, says progress has been very slow. In 1978, only 2% of California apprentices in construction were women. Today they make up 5% of the total.

Carolyn Clark, 19, began her five-year plumber's apprenticeship six months ago in Los Angeles. Her father, Gene Clark, is a journeyman plumber who encouraged her to apply for an opening in the program.

She takes classroom instruction in addition to on-the-job training and is determined to complete the program, which pays her $9 an hour plus fringe benefits. When she becomes a journeyman, her hourly wages will go to $24 under a union contract.

Wright, the apprentice carpenter, is training in a handsome new center in Sylmar with nearly 600 other apprentices. Even though construction work is slack these days, the carpenters program is accepting applicants. Most other programs--all are jointly administered by employers and unions--have reduced or stopped accepting applications because of lack of work. Also, fewer are applying for training in trades such as carpentry because they know work is scarce.

James Almond, head of Carpenters Local 209, said only about 20% of the apprentices in his program are sons or daughters of journeymen, "but I know from personal experience it is a wonderful thing when kids can pick up where their parents leave off. Several of my own have gone through the apprentice program."

Kashif Ali, coordinator for the Carpenters Training Center in Sylmar, says the training that apprentices get "gives them a sort of security blanket. Even if they move to other work over the years, their skills as carpenters can often provide them with a good fallback opportunity for a job."

Electrical contractors and unions have long had contractual provisions designed to spread work during recessions.

Homer Lee, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' Local 11, says when unemployment in an area hits 16% of the union membership, the work is reduced to 32 hours a week, allowing more members to get a share of the available jobs. The 40-hour workweek resumes when the jobless rate drops back to 11%.

The jobless rate in Local 11 is now 17%, so electricians are working only 32 hours a week. But the union continues to train apprentices despite the short workweek in order to not disrupt their training, Lee says.

Richard Gannon, who runs an apprenticeship training program for surveyors, says some studies show that construction is no longer regarded as a "desirable occupation" by many young people. Part of the reason may be that their first taste of such work is in non-union summer jobs where the pay is low and work practices sometimes unsafe.

That means those young adults whose older family members are in the trades are more likely to apply for apprentice openings because, Gannon says, "their family gives them a truer understanding of the realities and the long-range possibilities of the work."

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