Apprenticeship training offered by the regional union construction trades – such as steamfitters, masons, operating engineers – can be a path to opportunity for many people who don’t want to earn a traditional four-year college degree, or don’t have the resources to do so. A career in the union trades offers family-sustaining wages and benefits and the satisfaction and pride of providing a true service to the community.
Union apprenticeship programs provide free training and pay apprentices during on-the-job training. But starting down that road can present challenges, particularly for people coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds because apprentices are not paid for while attending mandatory training at the training center.
All unions have initial training programs that can range from a few weeks to several months during which apprentices are not paid. And while the training itself is provided at no cost, different programs may require participants to pay for tools, training materials, or other up-front expenses. And all participants require transportation to the training centers and the jobs sites scattered all over the region.
For a resident of Homewood with a minimum-wage job interested in becoming a steamfitter, finding enough money to cover living expenses and daily transportation to the training facility thirty-five miles away in Harmony PA for 18 weeks of free but unpaid training may seem out of reach.
“Bridge to Opportunity” grants would help offset living expenses, transportation costs, tools, and other upfront expenses that are needed to start down this new career-building path. The state and federal governments have traditionally provided scholarships and grants to eligible students wanting to pursue a four-year degree. They should do the same for people choosing a technical training path in the skilled trades.
“Bridge to Opportunity” grants would provide economically disadvantaged residents of the Commonwealth a pathway to a fulfilling career. At the same time, it would serve as a pipeline to train hard-working individuals that are needed to build and expand our physical infrastructure at a time when retirements are reducing the ranks of union tradespeople.
To ensure a high level of commitment from individuals, the grants can be structured as loans offered at the start of the unpaid training period. The loans would be forgiven upon completion of the apprenticeship and achieving journeyperson status. Any participants who do not complete the program would be required to repay the state.