What It’s Like to Be a Construction Apprentice in Westchester

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Wappingers-based Michael Carney says being an apprentice has given him the opportunity to learn multiple trades as a laborer and encourages others to consider the career path.

Michael Carney, 32, started his career landscaping for his uncle’s business when he was in school. He comes from an Italian-Irish family that instilled in him from a young age the importance of working hard to get what you want in life. He was no stranger to hard work out in the field and knew he’d always be in a blue collar job, especially coming from a family that had most members working for unions.

“I wouldn’t be able to sit in an office at a desk all day,” says Carney. “I can’t do it. But this is for me.”

After landscaping, he did roofing for a company based in New York City for a few years and became a foreman. He loved it, but the 4 a.m. leave the driveway and 8 p.m. back home schedule wasn’t feasible as he began to grow his family with his wife. In blue collar work, the hours are always going to be long and exhausting, but he knew there would be a better middle ground elsewhere. In 2021, he applied to Hawthorne-based union Laborers Local 60 as an apprentice and got in.

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We spoke to Carney to learn more about what what the process of joining the union was like, how his experience has been so far, and if he recommends it for other workers.

Q: What was the experience like to get into the union?

A: To get into our union, you have to do a physical agility test with seven different stations, including things like jackhammer for 15 minutes, fill up a wheelbarrow with gravel and push it 30 feet, fill up sandbags with gravel, put up a scaffold and take it down, [and] carry cement blocks and stack them.

They were like “Wow, this guy is like an animal.” I’m a young, white kid, tatted, who they thought was just here for the money. But they told me they saw a different thing in me. Fast forward to now, and they ask me to volunteer for every event. I went to Rockland Community College’s career day a couple of months ago and showed them how to jackhammer. I love it. I like working hard and coming home tired.

Q: How long is the apprenticeship?

A: It’s 4,000 working hours and 300 training hours. Every Saturday is training at our facility in Brewster. You don’t have to go every weekend because you only need 300 hours in a two-year period. I’m well over 300 hours now. It’s the working hours that are harder to get. Winters get slow, we get laid off. My first year I was laid off from February to May. Last year I was laid off right before Christmas to the end of April. Had I not been laid off those two winters, I would have been further ahead.

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Q: What’s the balance like between formal education and on-the-job training as an apprentice?

A: Every Saturday the training changes, unless it’s a longer class. The past couple of weeks we were doing pipe laying. We might be taught how to do water mains in class, but I may never do water mains out in the field for a few years. But it’s the best thing to get that knowledge in class.

The things they teach you in school are around Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and specific training. But on the field, from job to job, things are done a little differently depending on the foreman. They have their own ways of doing things. What you learned at one company might not be how they do things at another company. As an apprentice, we’re always moving around. I learned that I need to not only understand my job as a laborer but also mason work, carpentry work, iron work. We do it all. It’s being multi-faceted. If you’re just a cement guy, or blacktop guy, you’re not really an asset to anybody. But as an apprentice, plus all the certifications I had before coming into the union, they’re like “holy crap.”

I also don’t want to feel stagnant. I don’t want to just be a journeyman. I want to grow. I want to be a foreman, a supervisor, whatever. I want my kids to have a better life than what I had.

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Q: What projects have you done so far as an apprentice?

A: I started out doing water mains, sewer, and drainage for seven months. I was working with them five minutes from my house in Wappingers. When I got switched from there, I was working with a multi-million dollar company on the Lincoln Avenue Bridge crossing over the Hutchinson River Parkway. I’ve done water main jobs, curbs, sidewalks, and parking garages in Yonkers. I did the Boys and Girls Club in New Rochelle. Now, I’m with a company called Transit Construction Corp. I’m working with iron workers and helping them out. Right now, I’m in Carmel redoing a bridge.

Q: What would you say to someone who is going back and forth about whether an apprenticeship is for them?

A: If you like to work hard and enjoy construction, I highly recommend it. It’s definitely not a career for everyone. If you’re young, coming out of high school with no experience, I think the apprenticeship is great. You learn at school, they teach you how to do things, and you get to do stuff on the job. Sometimes foremen have small crews and don’t have time to teach on the job, and an apprentice might be in the way more than anything. But the foreman and journeyman who have time to teach, you learn. You learn by watching.

Once the apprenticeship ends, I become a journeyman. Then I can become a foreman after a couple more years. The pension, the health benefits, the pay are all great. Right now I’m at 2,600 working hours, and every 1,000 working hours you get a pay raise of $4 to $5.

I say go for it.

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