By IAN HICKS, For The Times Leader
WHEELING - The latest trends in education come and go. But when it comes to teaching people how to build things, local labor leaders say there's no substitute for the centuries-old concept of apprenticeship. Apprenticeship programs, which became common in the Middle Ages and can be traced in some form back to ancient Rome, give students the chance to learn directly from those who have gone before them as well as earn a wage while they hone their craft. Ironworkers Local 549 operates one such program at its training facility in Center Wheeling, and the experienced tradesmen there have spent many years teaching the builders of tomorrow. "The older members teach the younger members the proper way to do things," said Bryan "Carp" Dierkes, who coordinates the union's apprenticeship program. "My instructors have all been in the field for years. They're very knowledgeable." Over three and a half years, ironworker apprentices spend hundreds of hours at actual job sites, working under the supervision of experienced members. Their wages increase progressively from about $17 an hour at the beginning to about $26 per hour upon completion, and the field work is mixed with regular classroom instruction. "They go to school one night a week for four hours, and then some Saturdays," Dierkes said. "We usually start the first of September and go through May, but they continue to work in the field through the summer." Dierkes said his union is a "mixed local," meaning its members don't concentrate on a particular specialty but "a little bit of everything." For that reason, he said someone completing the Wheeling training program should be able to work essentially any job around the country. There are about 25 enrolled in the Ironworkers apprentice program right now, down significantly from an enrollment of 80 a couple years ago as economic conditions have taken their toll. "We were taking 30 (new) apprentices a year, and with the recession we didn't want to bring somebody into the program and say, 'Here you go, but there's no work for you.'" Dierkes is predicting a turnaround, however. He said the program receives 300-400 applications each year, and he hopes to begin accepting larger and larger classes over the next few years. "It's gradually picking up. ... We just put a $500,000 addition on our building and we're getting ready," he said. "We're reloading." The union accepts applications to the program from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each Monday at the 2350 Main St. union hall. And other local organizations offer apprenticeship programs for bricklayers, roofers, electricians, carpenters, painters and more. For more information on those programs, call Project BEST at 304-242-0520 or 740-282-3616. Project BEST stands for "Building Efficiency by Striving Together" and is an organization with more than 500 contractors and 6,000 tradesmen among its members. According to Dierkes, who went through the Ironworkers Local 549 program years ago and has worked on many local projects including at Wheeling Hospital and Cabela's at The Highlands, the success an apprentice achieves depends on the work he puts into it. "I never missed a class in three and a half years, and I learned a lot," he said. "It's a great opportunity. I've made a good living in ironworking."
Cameron resident Robert Howard, a welding student at the Ironworkers Local 549 in Wheeling, demonstrates a welding technique.