While most of his friends went to college after high school, Port Jefferson Station, NY, resident Todd Hentschel Jr. worked nights on the dairy farm at the local ShopRite.
“I absolutely hated it,” he said.
But when he was 19, he hadn’t decided what he wanted to do next. That is, until he spoke to a friend of his father’s, a man who worked as a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor.
“He told me about his union’s apprenticeship program — where I could get paid if I learned a trade — then asked me if I was interested,” Hentschel said. ‘I said to him, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
The United Service Workers Union (USWU) program is five years long and requires working five days a week in addition to attending evening classes twice a week.
“It was [a] solid core,” says Hentschel.
But it was time well spent. Hentschel not only likes solving problems in the variety of work involved, but also his total reward package.
“I’m one of the few workers among my friends, and I’d say I’m in the best position,” Hentschel said.
At age 28, Hentschel is now certified in HVAC and has Environmental Protection Agency and Health and Safety certification. He is currently working as an HVAC service technician at SavMor Mechanical in Ronkonkoma, LI, where he receives significant raises each year (about 20 percent to begin with), paid retirement, major medical and optical benefits, and much more. He has already invested in home ownership.
“Tell me where you can get all that and get paid while you learn,” said Brian Keating, director of the… USWU’s Joint Apprenticeship Training Center in Bohemia, NY.
Hentschel’s choice to enter trading is the tip of a trend that has accelerated during the COVID-19 era. According to experts, there are several forces at work that make it attractive. They range from the number of opportunities created by retiring baby boomers, to the fact that trade jobs have proven less prone to layoffs in other occupations during the pandemic.
“The [COVID-19] unemployment has lifted a veil over the trade industry and made it possible to clear up some misconceptions,” said Mary Kelly, president and CEO of the non-union affiliate. StrataTech Education Group. “While we witnessed an overwhelming number of businesses closing their doors, skilled craftsmen were highly sought after and considered essential.”
You don’t have to tell Brooklyn-born Faith Tarver that. The 34-year-old spent 15 years building a career in the fast food industry and was led to believe she was on a management track. “But in 2020 they let me go,” she said.
Tarver then saw a TV commercial for Tulsa welding school owned by StrataTech. She wrote down the information, filled out the application, applied for financial aid, and soon after began learning the trade in Jacksonville, Florida.
“It was a struggle,” she said, noting that she had to repeat a course and work part-time to earn pocket money, plus $21,000 in tuition and fees. But when she graduated, a job offer was waiting. In August, Tarver started a job at Tenneco in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she now welds pipes and pendants. She made $40,000 in her freshman year.
There is no shortage of decent work in New York City’s crafts, according to Jackie Mallon, first deputy commissioner for the NYC Department of Small Business Services.
“New York City encourages a lot of union projects,” she said. “Remember that there are about 142,000 union workers in construction in New York alone. These are good jobs for the middle class.”
There are some basic qualifications for union apprenticeship programs that range from a high school diploma and basic math skills to the ability to pass physical tests. Any local resident can put their name on an apprenticeship list, but they may need to complete a basic interview to determine if they are really interested in the profession.
A faster way to get in is through one of the city’s pre-internship programs. These provide direct access to apprenticeships in the skilled crafts. While you will not earn any money while participating, you are almost guaranteed a paid internship once you complete the program. “There is an agreement between the city and contractors,” Mallon said. “We are committed to educating a diversity of people and making those good jobs available to New Yorkers,” she added.
According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, union workers earn on average 11.2 percent more in wages than non-union workers in the same industry and occupation with comparable training and experience. For example, unionized black workers are paid 13.7 percent more than their non-union peers, while unionized Hispanic workers are paid 20.1 percent more.
In addition, 94 percent of workers under unionized contracts have access to employer-sponsored health benefits, compared to just 68 percent of nonunion workers. Not only that, but 91 percent of unionized workers under unionized contracts have access to paid sick days, compared to 73 percent of non-union workers.
In addition to these benefits, both Hentschel and Tarver love their job.
“Becoming a welder has changed my life,” Tarver said.
• The New York Department of Labor: DOL.NY.gov
• New York City Pre-Internship Program and Free Industry or Construction Training: www1.NYC.gov
• Cost-based training programs are listed at: FindMyTradeSchool.com