Photo: Eileen Escarda
The apprentice track
Some firms recognize the value in creating apprenticeships for young workers.
Anthony Pierce played basketball well enough at Coconut Creek High School in Broward County to earn a scholarship to West Virginia State University. Beyond dreaming of turning pro, he had no real plan. An injury and wanting to help his mother led him back to Florida — without a degree. He had spent his youth at the Boys & Girls Club and took a job there as a $9-an-hour counselor.
One day, ABC Institute, the education arm of a trade association, the Associated Builders and Contractors Florida East Coast Chapter, came to pitch kids to consider its apprenticeship program. “I was, ‘Hey, I know I’m a little older but is it possible I could take advantage of this?’ ”
Pierce, 27, is now in his final year of a four-year electrician apprentice program, studying at ABC Institute and working for RAC Electric in Broward as he moves toward becoming a licensed journeyman. He started at $11 per hour full time. “That was a big difference for me. I look at what I get paid hourly as an accomplishment,” he says.
In 2008, before it became apparent how bad the real estate bust would be, the ABC Institute apprenticeship program had 1,500 students. Nearly a decade later, the program has 775 apprentices, says Peter Dyga, ABC Institute chapter president and CEO.
Apprentices work full time for their employers during the day helping — depending on the company and program — plumbers, line erectors or companies in a slew of other trades and attend their employer-paid classes one or two nights a week or a Saturday to further their training.
Wiginton Fire Systems, a 50-year-old Sanford-based sprinkler company, has backed apprenticeships for decades thanks to founder Joe Wiginton, a big believer in the programs, and his sons, who took over the company from their dad, says human resources Vice President Steve Browne.
Wiginton now has 56 apprentices. They start at about $10 per hour and step up in pay as they complete each semester on the four-year journey to becoming a licensed journeymen making $19 an hour depending on location. The 410-employee company is employee owned and features “continuous learning” to advance careers. The majority of senior management started as helpers and apprentices themselves.
Dyga says ABC Institute apprentices range in age from 18 into their 50s, with most in their early 30s. It has proven so difficult to attract high school students to the skilled trades that ABC Institute concentrates its outreach on an older demographic. “Life has a way of getting you to pay attention after five or 10 years,” Dyga says.
Finding people to go into Wiginton’s apprenticeship program “isn’t that challenging” given its pluses, Browne says. But for every three who start the program, one or two will drop out, Browne says, though those who make it through the first year tend to stick nine out of 10 times. The work requires a mechanical inclination and the ability to work “at height” in new construction, work that’s hot, loud and 50 feet up.
For those who have the physical, mental and attitudinal attributes, however, skilled trades can be rewarding. Pierce, the RAC Electric apprentice, a musician and model on the side, is looking to buy a house and looks forward to making $20 to $30 an hour once licensed. “Construction is a beautiful thing — to be able to work with your hands. To me, I can pay my bills. I have a wife. I’m good,” he says.
Power Design, an electrical contractor on new construction apartments, hotels, condo and resort projects, has about 80 projects in Florida and could do more if it had more skilled workers. “It’s the No. 1 thing our executive leadership speaks about on a daily basis,” says Marlene Velez, Power Design’s vice president of human resources. “That’s the No. 1 barrier we have to taking on more work. The war for talent is fierce.”
Power Design is all in when it comes to apprenticeships. In south Florida, it has 25 apprentices. The company, recently featured in Inc. as a best place to work, follows wage scales set by apprenticeship programs — generally between $11 to $18 per hour. It offers apprentices the same health and dental insurance and paid holidays as journeymen and has defined career paths for advancement. It even has its own simulation training facility in St. Petersburg to accelerate people into supervisory and management roles.
An apprentice gets paid while learning a trade — no student loans — and, once licensed, can make handsome money. Though exceptional, “there’s definitely a six-figure opportunity without a college degree,” Velez says. “College is not for everyone.”
Josue Rene, a native of Haiti, where he was a radio journalist, immigrated to Florida from France in 2007. By 2016, he was a grocery manager at a Walmart with four children, struggling to make ends meet. On the advice of a friend, he decided to enter the apprenticeship program offered by Associated Builders and Contractors Florida. Within a month, he had a job in Broward for St. Petersburg-based statewide electrical contractor Power Design, where he now makes double his Walmart pay and is halfway through the four-year apprentice program. “Now I am working for one of the best electrical companies in Florida. They give you training. They want you to be someone. Even though what I’m doing is hard, I’m good where I am. Since I’m working for Power Design everything has changed. I have more time for my kids.”