Union training programs in Philadelphia help build better workers

Apprentice painter Angel Robles practices his brushwork at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades training site.
Apprentice painter Angel Robles practices his brushwork at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades training site. (JANE M. VON BERGEN / Staff)
Posted: November 25, 2011

Industrial engineers might fantasize about building an ever more efficient assembly line. And advertising copywriters dream of coining a catchy slogan.

People such as Pamela Shadzik, a corporate workforce development specialist, yearn to create the perfect training program - teaching the exact skills needed on the job while advancing the capabilities of employees.

These days, when Shadzik has that kind of need, "I just call Cheryl," she said.

Cheryl is Cheryl Feldman, executive director of the District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, an educational program jointly funded by the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees and employers such as the Temple University Health System, where Shadzik works as director of leadership and organizational development.

Feldman is part of a parallel education system that trains tens of thousands of people around the nation, including at least 6,000 in this region.

The system has its roots in a labor law enacted in 1947. The Taft-Hartley Act allows employers and unions to set up training programs funded by a percentage of the payroll, usually 1.5 percent.

Shadzik, representing management, cochairs the training fund that Feldman administers with union president Henry Nicholas. A Center City school operated by 1199C focuses on training health-care workers, but has expanded beyond that.

The parallel system fills an important role in this era of persistent 9 percent unemployment, as educators, employers, and workforce experts struggle to rectify the mismatch between skills employers need and skills employees have.

Public policy officials look to community colleges to bridge the gap. But these jointly run Taft-Hartley organizations have an immediacy born out of quarterly meetings between employer and employee representatives.

"I had never seen anything like it," said Shadzik, a 20-year professional who came to Temple seven years ago. "I think it's very rare."

Not in this world.

For example, union educator Michael Schurr is setting up a train-the-trainer course in traffic safety control at the recent request of painting contractors, now busy with stimulus-funded work repainting the nation's bridges.

"They want to keep the maniacs on the road," said Schurr, a former glazier who now directs the apprenticeship program for District 21 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

Schurr presides over the Philadelphia Apprenticeship Coordinators Association, representing educators from 30 building trades, covering 16 unions in the region.

The group meets monthly in one another's schools and delves into educational trends, such as Web-based learning or exploring the psyche of their students, mostly in their late teens and 20s.

"They are extremely sensitive," Schurr said. "They care about being part of a team."

For painting apprentice Angel Robles, 19, of Bensalem, the union program provides an alternative to community colleges. The programs are free. Apprentices earn money, balancing job-site training with classroom instruction.

"My friends - most of them are going to college and they're not working," Robles said as he practiced his brushwork recently at the union's school, the Finishing Trades Institute of the Mid-Atlantic Region, a modern facility in Northeast Philadelphia. "I think I'll be pretty secure."

Union apprenticeship programs, Schurr said, will accept only as many apprentices as there are jobs. "We're not like community colleges that take 5,000 students, graduate some, and say, 'Good luck, now go get a job,' " he said.

But with construction unemployment running at 13 percent, enrollment is down.

"We haven't had any new apprentices since 2007," said Arthur E. Rodgers, who runs the local training program for the International Union of Elevator Constructors in Northeast Philadelphia. His last class is about to graduate, and when it does, he too might be out of work.

John L. Stahl 3d, administrator of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers local training program, said the biggest stress "is making sure we have jobs. That, to me, is the biggest frustration."

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter.

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