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“The number-one complaint that we hear from contractors and their associations is a lack of skilled labor. But there is no lack of skilled labor; there is only a lack of commitment to train skilled labor. It costs between $12,000 and $25,000 to train each apprentice on an effective three- or four-year program, depending upon the trade. That’s more than some people want to spend. But trained workers don’t sprout off trees.”


So says Bill Rogers, a plasterer of three decades or more. But he isn’t just blowing hard. He is focused on providing the solution as executive director of the Plasterers and Cement Masons Job Corps Training Program. We caught up with him at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, where he was one of the four judges at a twin contest for cement mason and plasterer apprentices.


The oldest construction union in the country, the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association, runs state/regional contests for apprentices every year in Ohio, Hawaii, California and Indiana (New England is talking about one, too). The tradition was born one cold weekend in San Francisco 28 years ago and 112 years after the union was founded. Every other year, the winners go to a national competition.


The idea behind these contests, apart from having fun and providing an opportunity for some good-natured rivalry between halls and competitors looking for bragging rights, is to see how well apprentices are in getting all aspects of the trade so as to be successful on the job site. Competition fosters good work, and this is one way OPCMIA brings it about.


THE CHALLENGE



Although some plucky first-year apprentices were giving it their best shot against their more experienced colleagues, most of the Indie contestants were nearing the end of the apprenticeships, and some were even participating for the third year in a row.


In a small space, apprentices are asked to demonstrate a wide range of skills typically required of cement masons and plasterers. The six plastering apprentices were asked to do two projects covering different aspects of the trade: veneer, exterior insulation and finish systems, conventional plastering in which they created a template and ran a crown mold up in the ceiling, mitering into the joint and applying all the finishes. One wall was provided for the EIFS project, another for the interior project.


The 12 cement mason apprentices were also given a set of identical prints challenging them to apply the various aspects of the trade on an 8-foot by 4-foot platform: a set of steps, decorative flatwork, curb and gutter, and a cove base. From reading the blueprints and building the platforms to the tooling to the finishing touches, their project was quite complicated. The first day, they did all the formwork from prints, cutting all their own stock to size. On the second day, a concrete truck backed right up to the tent and a bevy of Indiana Job Corps members all decked out in shining white, wheel-barrowed the cement to the apprentices to shoot in about a quarter of a yard of concrete per platform. The contestants then colored, textured and finished the cement, stripping away the forms to complete their projects by the end of the second day.


All apprentices were completely focused on their projects for two days straight. No time for horseplay, banter or cigarette breaks (those smoking paused only long enough to light the cigarettes, and then kept them between their lips until it was time to throw away the filters … being careful that no ash fell into their handiwork, in case they lost points for that. Finishing first earned some points, but not as many as doing it right and getting it right.


Bill Rogers—who happened to win the first contest, held in San Francisco in 1976, and who helped revamp the plasterers’ training program and establish the first international contest—explains what the plaster judges are looking for: “We see primarily if the contestants are using all their tools correctly and productively. And if their understanding of the cementitious materials is good—some of which set rapidly, some slowly, and all requiring different proportion of mixes.


“Having and bringing the right tools for the job is important, too. So is whether they made the template correctly to run the crown mold up in the ceiling. When they do it correctly, they’ll produce molding that you can run your fingers over and it’ll feel like glass.


“Other points we look for are whether they are keeping themselves and their area tidy. Plastering is a very messy trade if you’re not proficient at it.


“Another factor is whether they are following the details of the blueprints without creating a lot of waste. We measure up from the bottom, for instance, to see if the expansion joint in the EIFS project is exactly where the blueprints say it should be. It’s deliberately not at the end of two board heights to see if they are paying attention.


“Are they using their time productively? It’s not a horse race—the first one done is not necessarily the winner. That’s not what works on the job site either. We want a project that’s sellable at the end, and if it takes a few more minutes or even half an hour longer than somebody else to get that, and that’s the project that you’d want to buy and take home, then that’s what we’re looking for. But if somebody is standing around cleaning tools, smoking a cigarette, looking at the sky—we mark points off because that’s not an effective use of their time.


“Safety is always a factor. The metal blade we use in plastering is sharp enough to shave with. Are they being careful with it? Are they using safety glasses when it’s appropriate, such as overhead when running mold that can fall in their eyes very easily?


“We also look for the talent of the individual—there’s some artistic ability required in our trade, especially when you’re applying textures. The textures have to be uniform, although we give them some latitude. That’s the only aspect that is different between each contestant. We’d rather see a simple texture done well than an elaborate one done poorly. But if they’ve got the talent and the competence to do an elaborate one well, that of course is something that’s going to chalk up points.


“Of course, the finished product is a monster part of the points. When we go in and pick everything apart, we give it the white-glove treatment, examining the smallest details of the mold: Is it glassy smooth like a piece of marble, or does it have pockmarks or brush marks that aren’t acceptable on a job?—that kind of thing. When people come in here, they should say, ‘I want that in my house!’ They’ll see the colored finishes on the EIFS and look at those molds and say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that with plaster, I thought you could only do that with wood!’ This event is a good representation of our trade today.”


The other plaster judge, John Powers, worked his way up as a plasterer before joining Dryvit, where he works today as a field service manager and project specialist. Dryvit provided the materials for the plasterer competition, as well as loaning John.


On the concrete side is judge Jim Mullins, area rep for the Artcrete Inc., the Louisiana-based manufacturer of the decorative concrete products used in the competition. He has been in the decorative industry for 20 years and now travels around the world doing seminars and training contractors on how to use decorative concrete products.


Like the plaster judges, Jim is looking for proper use of tools and especially during the first day when forms are constructed, precise measurements taken off the blueprints, and the overall neatness and accuracy of the project.


Adding to Bill’s refrain, Jim says, “Whenever I talk to contractors, the biggest complaint they have is they are not able to find skilled people. This union is an organization that builds skilled people, which makes it very important. Seeing a good turnout of young people excited about their work, which is labor intensive, is encouraging to me. Younger kids these days sometimes avoid labor-intensive jobs, but not these folks.”


FEEDING THE APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAM



Where do many of these young apprentices come from? Bill’s the guy to ask that, because 40 of his Job Corps protégés turned up in force from around the state to help set up and take down the event, as well as bringing the concrete to the contestants.


“I really admire kids from the inner city who are trying to make something of themselves and are willing to work hard,” Bill explains. “The Job Corps breaks racial and socio-economical barriers. You just take a craftsman whose been doing it for 40 years and a young kid like this right off the streets of some inner city, and all of a sudden, they have a relationship, something in common!


SO WHO WON?



At the awards banquet at the end of the second day, the first, second and third place winners from among the cream of the crop from Indiana received their awards. Note that the Indiana winner two years ago won the national contest last year, so the Indiana apprentices are no slouches.


The judges all expressed admiration for the great work done by the apprentices. There was one dropout—an apprentice whose nerves got the better of him, so he was given some drills to do that would enable him to remain calm under pressure, and he vowed to come back the next year and do better.


John Powers noted that “the apprentices have done phenomenally well. Several of them completed their task in a timely fashion and have done an excellent job of it, so it’s a good group of kids.”


Kevin Elliott stated, “These kids did a very good job and showed real talent. They all had trouble with the steps. The concrete hardened a little bit quicker than they had expected, and they all had trouble with those steps. They did well, but there were no 10s. They paid too much attention to the smaller details and didn’t look at the big picture. I’m taking this back to Illinois where we’re going to have the same kind of competition.”


Bill Rogers added that “the training world in unions is very passionate, very people-orientated, a very tight-knit community, and everybody shares and helps one another in it. It’s the best of what we are. When you get a kid with a spark in his or her eyes, it just makes you want to give them so much more. When they’re receptive and have some talent, it’s just like an open book.”


Oh, and if you are curious as to who won, here are the rankings:


Plasterers:



First Place—Jason Platt.



Second Place—Steve Holzhausen.


Cement Masons:


First Place—Shawn Cruz.


Second Place—Adam McGugin.


But this is a game where everybody wins, so all other contestants were awarded a third place participation award.


About the Author

Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Clearwater, Fla.

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