While most of his friends headed for college after high school, Port Jefferson Station, NY, resident Todd Hentschel Jr. worked nights stocking dairy at the local ShopRite.
“I absolutely hated it,” he said.
But, at 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 apprentice program — where I could get paid as I learned a trade — then asked me if I was interested,” said Hentschel. “I told him, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
The United Service Workers Union (USWU) program is five years long and requires working five days per week in addition to attending evening classes twice per week.
“It was [a] solid core,” said Hentschel.
But, it was time well spent. Not only does Hentschel like solving problems across the variety of the work that’s involved, but his total compensation package as well.
“I’m one of the few blue-collar workers among my friends, and I’d say I’m in the best position,” said Hentschel.
At 28, Hentschel is now certified in HVAC and has Environmental Protection Agency and health and safety certification. He’s currently working as an HVAC service technician with SavMor Mechanical in Ronkonkoma, L.I., where he receives substantial raises (about 20 percent to start), paid retirement, major medical and optical benefits and much more each year. He’s already invested in home ownership.
“Tell me where you can get all of that and be paid as you learn,” said Brian Keating, director of the USWU’s Joint Apprenticeship Training Center in Bohemia, NY.
Hentschel’s choice to work in the trade is the tip of a trend that has accelerated throughout the COVID-19 era. According to experts, there are several forces at work making it attractive. They range from the number of opportunities created by retiring baby boomers, to the fact that trade jobs have proven to be less prone to the layoffs observed in other professions during the pandemic.
“The [COVID-19] unemployment lifted a veil on the skilled trades industry and allowed for a number of misconceptions to be dispelled,” said Mary Kelly, president and CEO of the non-union affiliated StrataTech Education Group. “Although we witnessed an overwhelming number of businesses shuttering their doors, skilled trades professionals were highly sought-after and deemed essential.”
That’s something that you don’t have to tell Brooklyn native Faith Tarver. The 34-year-old spent 15 years building a career in the fast-food industry and was led to believe that 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 took down the information, filled out the application, applied for financial aid and started to learn the trade out of Jacksonville, Fla., not long after.
“It was a struggle,” she said, noting that she had to repeat one course and work part-time to earn spending money, plus she had to pay $21,000 in tuition and fees. But, when she graduated, there was a job offer waiting. In August, Tarver started a job at Tenneco in Harrisonburg, Va., where she now welds pipes and hangers. She made $40,000 in her first year.
There’s no lack of decent work in the trades in New York City, according to Jackie Mallon, First Deputy Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services.
“New York City drives a lot of union projects,” she said. “Consider that there are around 142,000 union workers in construction alone in New York. These are good middle-class jobs.”
There are some basic qualifications for union apprenticeship programs that vary 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 have to pass a basic interview, the purpose of which is to determine if they are genuinely interested in the profession.
A quicker way in is through one of the city’s pre-apprenticeship programs. These offer direct entry into apprenticeships in the skilled trades. While you don’t earn money while you attend, you’re almost guaranteed a paid apprenticeship when you complete the program. “There’s an agreement between the city and contractors,” said Mallon. “We aim to train a diversity of people and make those good jobs available to New Yorkers,” she added.
According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, unionized workers earn on average 11.2 percent more in wages than nonunionized workers in the same industry and occupation with similar education and experience. Unionized black workers, for example, are paid 13.7 percent more than their nonunionized peers, while unionized Hispanic workers are paid 20.1 percent more.
Additionally, 94 percent of workers covered by a union contract have access to employer-sponsored health benefits, compared with just 68 percent of nonunion workers. Not only that, but 91 percent of union workers covered by a union contract have access to paid sick days, compared with 73 percent of nonunion workers.
On top of those benefits, both Hentschel and Tarver love their jobs.
“Becoming a welder changed my life,” said Tarver.
• The Department of Labor in New York: DOL.NY.gov
• New York City’s pre-apprenticeship program and free training in the industrial or construction fields: www1.NYC.gov
• Fee-based training programs are listed at FindMyTradeSchool.com