By MARY ANN HOLLEY
Byron Cook was first to arrive for the start of the new Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562 Champions program held recently. Masked due to the coronavirus, his eager attitude and broad smile were reflected by the gleam in his eyes.
“Opportunity,” said the 29-year-old, excited to spend his first day in the program. “It’s an opportunity for a new life with a solid career that supports my family.”
On Aug. 10, a group of 13 young men and women arrived at the Local 562 Union Hall in Earth City, enthused but nervous as they embarked on what promises to change their lives.
Together, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local Union 562, the Mechanical Contractors Association of Eastern Missouri (MCA-EMO), and the Plumbing Industry Council (PIC) developed their new “Champions” program, a joint initiative to expand membership diversity in the city of St. Louis, while strengthening the Local 562 workforce. The name Champions is an acronym, and stands for Creating Hometown Advantages Minority Participation In Our Neighborhood.
THE SKY IS THE LIMIT
John O’Mara, Local 562 business manager/secretary-treasurer, said 37 years ago he was in their shoes, starting work at Local 562, wondering what the future would hold.
“When I started, all I cared about was the good wages,” O’Mara said. “But then I found that our union is a brotherhood, a community with social activities, softball and other events that build relationships between our members. Our union is more than about work.”
O’Mara said the ultimate goal of the Champions program and the following five-year apprenticeship program is to prepare participants for even bigger things.
“When you complete the Local 562 program and reach journeyman status, you’ll be ready to become a foreman or a superintendent, or maybe get into the contractor world and own your own company,” O’Mara said. “Sixty percent of our companies are owned by people who sat in a room like this when they started, and now, we’re excited for you to get into the program and be part of our bigger picture. It’s nice to wake up in the morning and build something that five years from now you can look around and say you’re making our city better.”
SIX-WEEK STEP INTO THE FUTURE
“People will mentor you, and we will be involved with you for a long time,” said Brian Nichols, Local 562 assistant business manager/president. “We are all in this together. We’re here to be a big happy Local 562 family. When you get sworn in, you’ll be adopting 4,200 new brothers and sisters.”
Nichols told participants that as they move forward, they should take the program seriously.
“If there’s something you stumble on, we’re here to help you,” Nichols said. “We’re excited that you’re the first group to go through the Champions program.”
Nichols said the Plumbers and Pipefitters have been working together for 108 years, and over those years they’ve nurtured improved relationships with contractors, working together for a common goal like the Champions program offers.
“We make a vast difference in the communities where we live,” Nichols said. “If it’s just a job, you may not care about training, but when it’s a career, you’re in the right place. Local 562 has a top, state-of-the-art training center.”
Local 562 Training Instructor Kevin O’Mara said the Champions program is not only the first of its type, but these participants will be the first to use the union’s new training center.
“When I started working, I was told to go to the brewery. They sent me out as I started the apprentice program. I knew nothing,” O’Mara said. “We want you to know our history, but we also want you to know the tools and the terminology of the trade so you’re not blindsided when you go to the job. The big thing is having a mentor and us to reach out to at any time.”
The one-year program (through Aug. 20, 2021) will prepare Champions for long-term personal, financial and professional success in the pipe trades.
On their first day of school, they studied time management. Training will go on to include various interpersonal skills to help the participants succeed. After six weeks of intensive training, participants will graduate to pre-apprentice status and be placed for employment with participating mechanical and plumbing contractors of the MCA-EMO and/or PIC.
The program will also provide specialized monitoring and support to the participants throughout their first-year training and work in the industry.
Program participants were selected through a competitive application and interview process. Some came through the BUD program (launched in 2014, in partnership with the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council to bring more minority and female workers into the union trades), Mission STL and through word of mouth, said Fred Searcy, director of minority recruitment for Local 562.
“Our recruiting focus was on people living in the city,” Searcy said. “With all the new projects coming up in the city, we wanted to recruit participants that could live, work and build in their own city, making it easier for them to get to work if they didn’t have a car, while instilling pride in their own neighborhoods.”
TIME IS RIGHT FOR WOMEN IN CONSTRUCTION
“For women, all women in the trades, it’s a great time. It’s not a man’s world anymore,” said John O’Mara.
Megan Seabaugh, 28, completed the BUD program in February, then the coronavirus hit at graduation, and work dried up due to hiring freezes.
“I’ve been trying to get into the trades for years,” said Seabaugh, who has a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, writing, literature and the arts. “I worked low-paying jobs and was promoted to manager, but those jobs weren’t careers and I just wasn’t cut out to sit at a desk all day.”
O’Mara said the new Champions, like Cook and Seabaugh are coming into the trade at a great time, with several major projects slated for downtown St. Louis in the upcoming year.
“Although the world is crazy and COVID-19 is crazy, Local 562 is moving steadily forward, because we are essential workers, and the future for our industry looks good,” he said.
O’Mara said the upcoming projects include the new soccer stadium near Union Station, the huge National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) project, Washington University Medical School expansions and a new visitors center and more at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Lou Brock, Jr., son of the famous St. Louis Cardinals icon Lou Brock, now has his own company, Lou Brock Mechanical, is signatory with Local 562.
Brock, a former NFL player, recalled a time, long ago, when he dropped a pass and was reminded by his coach not to be discouraged, that the key is perseverance.
“I’ve had two female workers in our company, and they were a great part of the team,” Brock said. “Perseverance is what you need. It’s a really good career, but it takes perseverance. Whatever drives you, use it to win this game.”
Local 562 has grown to include 4,200 members who serve the plumbing and mechanical industry in 67 counties in eastern Missouri. Membership offers a wide array of plumbing and mechanical skills that are valued throughout the construction industry and they work with signatory contractors as the safest, most highly trained, productive workforce in the region.