When it came time to choose a career, it didn’t take Rick Pireaux long to decide.

With three previous generations of his family serving as iron workers, it was only natural that he would follow that tradition. Now, as an apprentice instructor for Iron Workers Local 3 in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, his role is to persuade others to follow that same path.

Pireaux and others led tours of the union training facility Thursday as part of a national effort by Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, to spread the word about the value of union labor. McGarvey joined a group of elected officials and labor leaders who spoke at a program after the tour to encourage more workers to apply for apprenticeships in the building trades.

With the Biden administration’s infrastructure program pumping more than $1 trillion into the economy, some have expressed concern that during a time of historically low unemployment there may not be enough skilled workers to fill the jobs needed to perform that work. Pireaux said he doesn’t think that will be a problem, noting his union began three years of training for about 70 apprentices last year and could have more this year.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “We try to stay ahead of the curve. That’s the most difficult thing we do. We adjust as needed.

“We will be able to meet those needs. We always find a way.”

McGarvey echoed those thoughts in his remarks, saying the labor movement has “the opportunity to train more people than ever before” as part of what he called “the infrastructure generation.”

Contrary to the belief in some circles, McGarvey said, studies have shown union workers are 14% more productive that nonunion workers and they are 4% less expensive to hire.

McGarvey strongly pushed labor’s ability to train new workers, saying unions provide more than $2 billion in training annually across the country.

“We are in the business of changing people’s lives,” he said, saying unions rank behind only the military in providing training. “We are the best kept secret in the world.”

The biggest challenge facing workers in building trades is affordable child care, McGarvey said, because early starting and late quitting times make it difficult for parents to use traditional program. Pilot programs in New York and Milwaukee are trying to address that situation, he said.

“It’s a gigantic problem for people in our trades,” he said. “We need a child care system that works for working people, and we don’t have it.”

As part of a Thursday, March 21, 2024, open house, Rick Pireaux, left, an apprentice instructor for Iron Workers Local 3 in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, shows the type of training apprentices get for installing reinforcement bars that get covered with concrete on road projects. (Ed Blazina/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said his family has a union background, although he chose college after trying to carry one load of reinforcement bars at a job site. He made an impassioned plea for society to switch its efforts from what he called the never-successful war on drugs to job training programs and endorsed the union way of life.

“We’ve got to change that [drug] game,” the mayor said. “It’s up to us to do that.

“The next generation doesn’t know the trades like I did. If they don’t know, they can’t go.”

Apprentices spoke highly of the value of the training program.

Kevin Swinton said he bounced around in a number of jobs before joining the iron workers through the apprentice program.

“It’s definitely the best investment I ever made,” Swinton said. “It’s a brotherhood. We take care of each other.

“I’m a Local No. 3 iron worker. I’m proud of it. Trades built America, literally.”

Arturo Sosa said he moved to Pittsburgh from New Mexico several years ago and applied to the iron workers on the recommendation of a family member.

“I want to join the long line to people who built this country,” he said.

Colin Bennington said he followed his family’s encouragement to attend college, but he graduated with substantial debts. He had a number of jobs such as a school janitor and “felt like I had no dignity” until he applied to the iron workers in his early 30s.

Now, he said, he has “all the things I never had in my life” as a result.

The three-year paid program, starting at $19 an hour, provides 1,000 hours of training over three years in a variety of skills such as welding, job safety, rigging for operating work platforms and preparing road and bridge decks for concrete. After a 40-hour introduction to the program, workers are sent to job sites for five to seven weeks to help with passing equipment and carrying material, then return to the classroom from time to time to learn special skills for certification.

The apprentices get regular raises to $25 an hour and many are certified in several areas when they become journeymen, Pireaux said. He stressed the training is open to anyone with a high school diploma who can pass a drug test.

Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, said the apprentices represent the best labor has to offer.

“You are our future,” he said. “We are the American labor movement. This is our time.”

At a Thursday, March 21, 2024, open house, apprentice instructor Rich Pireaux talks to a tour in the decking room, which Iron Workers Local 3 uses to train workers how to prepare bridge decks. (Ed Blazina/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.