Road to success: Vocational school pre-apprenticeship helps pair get started in carpenters union

During their junior and senior years, Peter Zulin and Christopher Soto both got a firsthand view of what it takes to become a union carpenter through a pre-apprenticeship program at the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters Apprentice Training Center in Edison.

While Middlesex County Vocational and Technical High School in Perth Amboy had an excellent carpentry program with an experienced teacher who had been a member of the carpenters union, the new 100,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Training Center offered more instructors, advanced training and exposure to other areas of commercial carpentry, like building with metal studs, which are typically used in commercial construction.

“The students were able to experience commercial work instead of traditional residential construction projects that they do at their vocational schools with wood two-by-fours,” said Thomas J. Sommers, director of outreach and development for the Northeast Carpenters Apprenticeship Fund. “It was a real eye-opener for them that we actually work with metal studs and not wood.”

The students also learned about other aspects of carpentry, including jobs that most laymen don’t associate with carpentry, such as millwrights, floor coverers, pile drivers, lathers and bridge construction.

Zulin and Soto were hooked. 

After graduating from high school in June, they applied for coveted positions in a four-year apprenticeship program in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

They are among six graduates from various vocational schools who started their apprenticeships earlier this month at the Training Center in Edison, where they spent two weeks learning skills they’ll need on the job site, including Occupational Health and Safety Administration rules. They are now working on job sites, earning about $20 an hour plus union benefits.

“If you enjoy what you’re doing while working, they say you never work a day in your life,” Soto said. “When I’m in the field and I’m out in the shop and we’re doing hands-on work, I really feel like I’m not working. I’m more learning, using my skills and showing my skills.”

The pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship program is an alternative career pathway, allowing students who are do not want to attend a four-year college the opportunity to earn good wages in a job with advancement opportunities that provides health benefits and a pension.

And, while the students may bypass college, that doesn’t mean they aren’t required to continue learning. The Training Center in Edison has numerous classrooms where students learn skills, such as how to read blueprints.

Zulin and Soto will return to the Training Center in about six to eight weeks for another week of training, then return to their job sites. They’ll repeat that cycle until they’ve get 200 hours of training per year for four years under their tool belts. If they successfully complete the four-year program, they will become journeymen and see a significant bump in their salaries.

The pre-apprenticeship program with Middlesex County Vocational School was funded by a Youth Transitions to Work grant from the New Jersey Department of Labor.  The grant paid for the cost of transporting the students from their high school to the training center as well as the instructors, giving them exposure to new skills and opportunities well beyond what their vocational high school could offer. Grant funding for this year has not been finalized, though Sommers is optimistic the state will continue to fund the program.

Sommers, who has been a union carpenter for 34 years and served as an instructor for a decade, now works to build relationships with vocational high schools throughout the state to create career pathways into the carpenters’ union.  

The union also is encouraging county vocational schools throughout the state to adopt a curriculum endorsed by the carpenters union called “Career Connections”. Students who successfully complete the program would have advanced standing should they decide to become carpenter apprentices in the union, shortening the time to become journeymen.

Like most employers, the union is always focused on building its pipeline of future workers, and vocational school carpentry graduates are ready to hit the ground running as apprentices. 

“The advantage to having them come from a vocational school versus just coming off the street is their baseline knowledge gives them a pathway into our organization,” Sommers said. “They have all the basic essentials. We don’t have to teach them how to read a ruler. They understand job safety, what it’s like to go on a construction site, what’s expected and how to act on a job site.”