September 13, 2022
By Damon Mitchell
On a sunny day at a massive construction site in Nashville, Sierra McCants takes off her hardhat as she clears the work zone. Workers transport materials, and a framework of steel beams rises near 10th Avenue and Broadway.
“It gets 10 floors to the parking garage,” she says, “and then Pinnacle Bank will be on top of it.”
McCants is an apprentice at Local 572. It’s a union for plumbers, pipefitters and HVAC technicians.
“I actually did a floor by myself,” she says. “Well, with my journeyman’s help.”
McCants got into the skilled trades during the height of the pandemic. She had been working in the restaurant industry, when many businesses were shutting down. That’s when she enrolled in a local program called Music City Construction Careers.
Like many critical industries in Tennessee, the construction field is facing a labor shortage. Businesses have been having a hard time finding skilled laborers, like welders and iron workers. MC3 has been trying to get people who normally aren’t exposed to the industry into those jobs.
“I like to say that it gives people about a year of on-the-job experience in two weeks,” says Sam Petschulat, the coordinator of the program.
At MC3, students learn about construction math, basic tools and everything they need to know to become an apprentice — a person who’s being trained on the job by a certified professional while seeking their own credentials. The process can take five years.
Completing the two weeks at MC3 also comes with job placement support. Since the program began in 2019, nearly 80 students have graduated. Just over 70% of those people have secured employment.
“We also work in tandem with the unions that people are in,” Petschulat says, “because that’s one of the main reasons that labor unions exist: is to give people more power on the job.”
The qualifications to join the program are fairly simple. People have to be 18, know English, have a diploma or GED and must be able to pass a drug test.
The training program is an alternative to Tennessee’s technical colleges, which can be hard to get into. At the start of the new academic year, TCATs had a statewide waitlist of more than 8,000 names deep.
But MC3 is another route to gain technical skills. The only thing is, because it’s connected to labor unions, not everyone knows the potential benefits of participating in the program.
“Because it’s a right-to-work state and because union membership is pretty low in Tennessee, that’s something a lot of people have never really thought about,” Petschulat says.
Right-to-work means that employers can’t force people to join unions in order to be an employee. Despite that law, Petschulat says MC3 does have partnerships with the state.
A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Labor acknowledged the training program, but didn’t say if they were encouraging people to sign up.
“Workforce Essentials, the partner who operates the American Job Centers in Northern Middle Tennessee, is familiar with Music City Construction Careers program,” writes Chris Cannon. “When job seekers come to an American Job Center, staff try to educate them on all the employment options available, including apprenticeship programs like the Music City Construction Careers.”
Local 572 training director, John Sechler, says being an apprentice is a lot like being in college.
“If you’re struggling with a class, we can get you extra tutoring,” he explains. “The main thing is: if you want to be here and you try, we’re going to get you through it.”
The first two years are normally spent getting a general education inside the classroom. Students are then allowed to pick a career path. They’re paid and receive insurance benefits during the process. Some students who want an academic degree can also receive college credit for their training.
“We’re not going to get rich, but if you want to buy a house, you’ll be able to buy a house,” says Eric Coons, the business manager for Local 572. “You’ll be able to buy a vehicle. You’ll be able to feed and clothe your family.”
Unionized trade workers also have access to a pension plans and other retirement benefits.
Still, the trades industry isn’t perfect. While there have been strides to diversify the profession, McCants says there’s still not enough women working on construction sites. That can be a challenge.
Where McCants she’s currently working, she says there are fewer than five women on the site. She says she wants other women, and her younger nieces, to join her — in order to change that.
“A lot of men don’t think women can do the job,” she says, “and you can.”