Young and in construction
Construction is beset by an aging workforce, so why would anyone young join?
Cristian Torres, 19, is an apprentice with the sheet metal crew on Ocean Park Mechanical. He started in October 2017, and is working on air conditioning at an apartment complex at 1411 N.W. Quimby St. Ocean Park Mechanical fabricate and install metal duct work. They make angles and clips on the spot when needed, but mostly it is made off site and Torres and his crew install it.
Workers like Torres lift and fit large pieces of TDC ductwork. These are the bigger sized ducts that moves huge amounts of air through the building, which exits through louvres on to the street.
Torres's foreman and project manager Junior Fidencio teamed him up with a journeyman to learn the trade. "It gives them hands-on training," said Fidencio.
Work varies. "We'll have a day where we fly tubs," says Fidencio. Translation? A day where all the bathtub/shower combos are lifted by crane to the last finished floor.
"We do that before they throw the next floor on, it saves time."
The tubs are too big for door and window openings, so this way they can be installed and then the slab of the next floor is poured above them.
The crew usually works 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., but now they are doing "four tens and an eight" because they are catching up on time lost to snow and rain. OPM is based in Vancouver, B.C. and has offices in Seattle, Portland, Oakland and Los Angeles.
The sheet metal side is not union, the plumbing is. On this site, they have six sheet metal workers, two service guys and 11 plumbers.
After high school Torres worked for a few years with his father at Bowden Alexander. They made high end cabinets for Giorgio Armani, Nike and YSL for retail stores. His father was his supervisor. "He always treated me a lot harder, so the other guys could see it's not favoritism," Torres told the Business Tribune. He's a big man and soft-spoken. He pauses before answering questions, like someone being asked them for the first time.
How did he jump to construction?
"Junior is a family friend, and I heard about the apprenticeship from him." At the cabinet plant Torres's sixth monthly reviews and pay raises were constantly deferred. So, when work ran low on Airport Way he took the voluntary lay off on the Friday and started the apprenticeship on the following Monday. "I definitely won't be going back there," he said of his old place.
Did he know anything about sheet metal?
At Reynolds High School, Torres used the laser cutter and did some shop.
"I wasn't much of a school person. I remember the teacher saying I need a good education. But a lot of my friends graduated high school and they're working in McDonalds or minimum wage jobs. I like what I make here and I have a fantastic crew I work with. Everybody's pretty friendly. There's times when stuff gets hard but that happens in any job."
The hardest part is remembering all the things he's been taught.
"The best way to not be so confused is to ask questions. So I do."
He fit right in.
"It's pretty much as you'd expect going into construction. A lot of physical work. Lifting, squatting, moving around, being on your feet a lot, running up and down from five flights of stairs to 13 flights of stairs. Here, we go up six flights."
For fun, Torres does speed soft at Oregon Airsoft Arena in Hillsboro, which consists of running around a plywood maze shooting pellet guns. He has an Ory-gun-ian bumper sticker on his Toyota pickup. He lives with his parents in Fairview. There's no studying after work.
"I ride a lot of dirt bikes, a CRF 450 Honda." He goes with his buddies to the dunes with his sand tires, and sometimes to the dirt. He and one of the three brothers on the crew ride quads together. "Sometimes I'll see if they want to hang out after work."
Being in construction pays well (see sidebar) and is rewarding. He recommends it to his peers.
"A lot of my friends want to show off their money but I say 'Yeah, but you work at McDonald's.' If you want to make more find a job in construction."
Would he do this job in California if he had to leave Oregon?
"I don't mind meeting new people but I would feel a lot more comfortable working with the people I'm already with. I know the flow, we know everybody's sense of humor. It's me, three brothers, another guy who is HVAC, and his apprentice. There's about six of us."
He's happy for now, in a sea of cranes and orange and green hoodies.
"Overall I think construction is satisfying. When they complete all the floors and you go up and look out and see all of Portland, it's just really nice."
After this building, he expects Ocean Park to line up the next job.
"Supposedly we're going to work on the Lloyd Center movie theater when they tear it down and make apartments."
He drives his truck to work and the company buys a few passes for a fenced parking lot under the I-405 ramp. "It's first come, first serve, so if you have to pay it's pretty annoying."
Other expenses include boots and tools. He just bought a bar fold, some tongs, a duct knife and vice grips for $120. He estimates his two bags of tools are worth $1,500. The workers engrave their names on them and store them in a lock box on site. He has no favorite brands — maybe Stanley for tape measures.
The job and the industry suit him, body and soul.
"If you're someone who likes physically demanding challenges and likes to move around, and like doing sheet metal, plumbing, woodwork and brick laying, pretty much everybody you work with is going to be a good person."
Good work if you can get it
Torres and Fidencio's colleague Antonio Ruiz, an apprentice pipefitter, is relatively mature at 26, but he is new to construction. Ruiz was working what he calls a dead-end job, doing finishes on surfaces in apartments, when he heard about the five-year apprenticeship and all its benefits from a friend. He hopes to be a fitter and is also learning to weld. He has classes two times a week though the union Local 290.
Once certified, he can work throughout the U.S. and in 30 other countries, including high-paying places such as the Arabian Gulf states.
"I'm not too opposed to traveling, if the price is right."
Both young men say the training in Oregon is rigorous.
Fidencio the foreman says "If we get slow here we can send the guys down south or up north, so they're not sitting around at home." When they travel away from home they get their hotel and food paid, plus some spending money.
A journeyman pipefitter makes $76 an hour. As an apprentice Ruiz makes around $32, with a pay increase every six months of ten percent of the difference between the two rates.
The sheet metal apprenticeship is non-union so it pays less. The first year starts at $19.80 an hour, the second at $24 an hour. "And then it goes on and on until you journey out."
Ruiz says he's the only one of his friends in construction.
"A lot of my buddies went the white-collar route, to themselves degrees." He has a friend working at Zapproved down the street in the Pearl, a place where they do electronic discovery for legal documents. "It's funny we're both in the Pearl doing different things."
He thinks his friends weren't interested in construction because it's hard work.
"They went to school. I went to school and goofed off and spent too much money. I just decided to go a different route." He tried taking general education classes at Lane Community College, PCC and PSU. "I didn't enjoy it." When he left off finishing surfaces for construction, he found his groove. The physical labor didn't bother him at all.
"I like getting my hands dirty. I don't like standing around, being stuck in one spot. This is a great crew and I've become a pretty valuable person at the end of the day."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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