Pat Sowers, 46, of Poplar Grove, teaches a student to make stairs at the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters’ Apprentice and Training Program in Elk Grove Village, on Tuesday, March 13, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Carpenters Union offers paid apprenticeship program: ‘It’s a lifestyle’

Alissa Roush knew she always wanted to work with her hands.

“It’s really satisfying to step back and look at something that you made and know that you got it down to a 1/64th-of-an-inch precision,” she said. “It’s exciting for me to make stuff.”

Two years into working toward a teaching degree at Truman College, Roush, 25, who was not receiving financial aid, changed course and enrolled in the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters’ Apprentice and Training Program.

She was one of about 145 people in an eight-hour class session Tuesday at the northwest suburban Elk Grove Village training facility.

Students in the union’s paid, four-year apprenticeship program can become certified and trained in a range of carpentry skills, general carpentry, drywall, floor covering, insulation, lathing, mill cabinet, millwright, pile driving, roofing, siding, or concrete forming. They receive assistance in finding employment during the apprenticeship, and attend training classes for one week every 90 days. In addition to the Elk Grove Village site, the union also has schools in Chicago, Rockford, Pekin, East Moline and Davenport, Iowa.

“I always wanted to make stuff, but I knew that art school was kind of a gamble …. This seemed more practical,” said Roush, who lives in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood.

She is four weeks into the nine-week mill cabinet pre-apprentice training course, which focuses on the basic skills, such as safety, math and print reading, and pays a stipend of $35 a week for the first three weeks, then $90 a week for the last six weeks.

Upon completion of the nine-week course, Roush and the other students in her class will receive $300 worth of tools, initiation fees and first quarter dues to join the union — about $20 a month for Carpenters Union members — and will then start the apprenticeship program.

Students in the apprenticeship program get paid on a scale, roughly between $260 and $450 a week; 40 percent of journeyman wages during the first year, 50 percent during the second year, 65 percent during the third year, and 80 percent during the fourth year of the program. The students also receive benefits, insurance and a pension.

“When somebody comes into this program, it’s not just a job, it’s a career that you’ll hopefully have for a lifetime,” said Vince Sticca, director/coordinator of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters’ Apprentice and Training Program.

The Carpenters Union is among a group of labor unions with an ownership stake in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reader.

“The way I look at carpentry, it’s a lifestyle,” said Arthur Lewis, 25, who joined the apprenticeship program after graduating high school. “It allows you to do so many other things, like, if you wanted to go into real estate or purchase your own property, being a carpenter, knowing how to do these things that the trade teaches you, it allows you to work on your own stuff at home.”

Lewis, who lives in the South Shore neighborhood with his wife and 5-month-old son, is in the third year of his apprenticeship, working at Ujamaa Construction, making more than $30 per hour, 40 hours a week.

He said his wife was able to stay at home during her pregnancy.

“I can solely provide for my family …. (The job) gives me a little bit of a cushion,” Lewis said. On Tuesday, he was learning how to make metal rafters.

The classes in Elk Grove Village see about 2,000 students a year, about 45 percent of whom are minority and women, Sticca said. The apprenticeship program touts an 80 precent graduation rate. Once an apprentice graduates from the program and becomes a journeyman, the union also offers evening “skill advancement” courses for additional training and certifications.

“It’s demanding, it’s hard, you’ve got to be focused, you’ve got to be willing, you’ve got to be driven,” said Allen Canterbury, 31, who lives in Garfield Ridge.

Three years into his apprenticeship, Canterbury was learning how to make stairs on Tuesday. He works at Edon Construction, making more than $24 per hour, building a residential townhouse community near South Prairie Avenue and East 18th Street in Chicago.

“I joined the Carpenters Union because I like working with hands-on material. You see your work being built in front of you, you feel proud about it and you learn a trade that you can use every day,” he said.

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