By MARY ANN HOLLEY
A little more than six weeks ago, Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562 brought together 14 young men and women with uncertain futures and showed them a way to build a solid career in the piping industry.
Last week, these “Champions” graduated from an extensive, six-week training program as Local 562, the Mechanical Contractors Association of Eastern Missouri (MCA-EMO) and the Plumbing Industry Council (PIC) stood together congratulating the dedicated young people for their determination and commitment.
The new pre-apprentices are the first in the joint initiative designed to expand membership diversity in the city of St. Louis, while strengthening the Local 562 workforce, said Local 562 Business Manager John O’Mara.
CHAMPIONS is an acronym for Creating Hometown Advantages through Minority Participation in Our Neighborhood.
THE GRADUATION CEREMONY
“It’s a little like a draft pick,” O’Mara said as each of the young Champions were called up to the front by their new companies and were presented with their first official company hardhat. “What a day to be a Champion. These candidates had to be ready to reach certain goals, and six weeks later, they’ve met every one. This is a really good beginning.”
Growth in the group over the six-weeks program was obvious. Champion Byron Cook said he feels like they are all “family, a brotherhood.”
Desiree Baldwin, a young woman who was “quiet as a mouse” during her first day in the program, took the initiative to speak to guests at the graduation ceremony, including State Senator Gina Walsh, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, County Executive Sam Page, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and many supporters.
As various companies announced their selection of Champion graduates’ smiles were broad and cheers were loud.
“That’s my boy!” shouted one mother in the audience.
MOVING ON TO THE JOBSITE
“I’m very proud of myself,” said Cook. “What’s most surprising to me is the status and reputation Local 562 members have. I feel great to be in this union.”
Champion Brandon Townson said it’s been a pleasure to be involved in the program.
“I know we’ve been in a crash course,” Townson said. “I feel like a pipefitter now, even though I know there’s a long road ahead. I am certainly grateful for the unlimited resources we’ve been given through the program.”
Fred Searcy, director of minority recruitment for Local 562, said the young Champions, chosen through a competitive application and interview process and came to the program through Mission STL, as a former Building Union Diversity (BUD) graduate and through word of mouth.
“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.”
- Gov. Mike Parson congratulated the Champions, adding that he was “taking politics to the side” on this important day.
“When I became governor, I focused on workforce development,” Parson said. “If Missouri is to move forward, that includes ‘you’ in the workplace.” Parson said the Plumbers and Pipefitters Unions’ Champion program has played an important role in moving Missouri forward. “The only way to get this done is through you,” Parson said. “It’s all about getting a shot at the American Dream.”
- Mayor Lyda Krewson thanked Local 562 and the contractors for their commitment to diversity. She also thanked the Local 562 mentors who have and will continue to guide the young workers along the way, and the contractors for their readiness to hire the new workers. “They say a need and an opportunity go well together, and I’m anxious to see the graduates working in neighborhoods in the city,” Krewson said. “We need skilled workers with the big projects about to begin in St. Louis, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) project, Washington University Medical School expansions and a new visitors center and more at the Missouri Botanical garden, to name a few. You know this isn’t just another job,” Krewson said. “It’s a time to build St. Louis for the next generation.”
- Sen. Brian Williams (D-St. Louis County) said he grew up in a union household in Ferguson, Mo., and knows the value of union brotherhood and sisterhood. “I see in the audience sons, daughters, moms, dads, aunts and people like the ones who raised me,” Williams said. “I also see the fabric of our community being made stronger through the Champion program. You are joining brothers and sisters who value hard work. Remember, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
- State Sen. Gina Walsh (D-Bellefontaine Neighbors) told Champions that her first day in the trades, there wasn’t anyone who looked like her, and her apprenticeship happened in a garage. “You have been given an opportunity, but remember, it was built on the shoulders of others,” Walsh said. “Take it, keep it and use it.”
- Jeff Rush, a Mechanical Contractor’s Association Board member and President of icon Mechanical, said it is exciting to see the needs of the industry being met. “This was John O’Mara’s vision,” Rush said. “Yesterday we had a meeting where we were told that if we haven’t met these Champions, you’re missing out. Rush added, “As you consider your future, this may be your road less traveled, but by taking this road, you’re making all the difference in your life and your communities.” Rush said some companies are fourth generation, and our contractors are the first line of defense in safety. “Know you are now traveling down the road with a bright future,” Rush said.
MENTORING INTO THE FUTURE
Searcy said mentors will continue to be there for the Champions for help or just someone to talk to.
“When we selected mentors, we wanted someone to tell you straight,” Searcy said. “But these mentors will be there for you, so don’t be afraid to ask.”
The program will also provide specialized monitoring and support to the participants throughout their first-year training and work in the industry’s five-year apprentice program.