North Bay building trades look to boost ranks, diversify union membership through training program

As unions nationwide seek to stem the tide of declining membership, organized labor in the North Bay has launched a new effort to make apprenticeships in the trades more accessible to individuals without related work experience or a union connection.

The 10-week, 120-hour course, free for participants, provides education and skills training to anyone interested in pursuing an apprenticeship in one of 14 building trade unions.

“There hasn’t been a pipeline for people to get into the building trades,” said Bill Scott, co-director of the North Bay Trades Introduction Program. “It’s always been word of mouth.”

The new outreach effort addresses a problem of both perception and reality that unionized trades are grappling with, said Les Proteau, the other TIP co-director. Craftspeople have been predominantly men and often get into union apprenticeship programs because of family members with connections.

“It used to be that you had to know a guy,” Proteau said, who added that he got into the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades through his father who was also a member of that union. “But people who go through this program now know a guy.”

The North Bay TIPs program kicked off in April 2016 with a $349,000 grant from the state Employment Development Department. The funds were created by the California Clean Energy Jobs Act, approved by voters in 2012. The training gives priority to women, people from disadvantaged backgrounds and veterans.

The free training includes first aid, CPR and Occupational Safety and Health Administration certifications, hands-on instruction with tools and materials at union worksites and training centers. The North Bay Building Trades Councils, which oversees the program, has agreements with local unions to give priority to TIP graduates for apprenticeships.

Scott said the goal is to place at least 65 percent of TIP graduates into apprenticeship programs, a number that they’re on pace to beat.

In July, 19 people completed the first 10-week program held at the College of Marin. The second group of 14 students at Napa Valley College completed the program last month. The third cohort of 18 meets regularly ?at Santa Rosa Junior College and includes more women than the two prior groups.

In a classroom Wednesday at the Redwood Empire Electrical Workers Joint Apprenticeship Training Center in Santa Rosa, students from their late teens to late 30s helped each other with math problems. They were halfway through the “boot camp” to start the program, including a 7 a.m. start at Santa Rosa Junior College. The typical schedule for the building trades job is established at the beginning to weed out anyone who can’t show up on time, Scott said.

The math equations in Wednesday’s session caused Jordan Berry some frustration, but the 27-year-old Petaluma resident was thankful for the opportunity to practice. Last year, she applied for an apprenticeship program with the United Steelworkers but failed the math test. When she saw the flier for North Bay TIP she jumped on the chance to improve her skills.

Berry currently works at the Lagunitas Brewing Co.’s taproom in Petaluma. She likes her job and co-workers, but she said it’s not a career. Instead of taking on student loans to go back to school, she hopes to land an apprenticeship with the International Union of Operating Engineers to become a heavy-equipment operator.

“I’d rather be paid to learn than having to pay to learn,” Berry said.

Union apprenticeship programs can be as long as five years, with apprentices taking home prevailing wages commensurate to their experience. They also must attend unpaid classroom training through the course of their learning.

The fourth and final TIP group under the EDD grant will start class at Solano Community College in Fairfield this June. Proteau hopes to secure additional funding to keep the program running beyond this summer.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nrahaim.

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