Former college student packs books, goes straight to apprenticeship, and never looks back

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Taion Le’Viege loves his career. A carpenter apprentice with Local 41 of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters in Renton, Washington, he speaks with a fervent enthusiasm for his work. Nearing the end of his path to journeyman, he is thankful for a job that has allowed him to learn new skills and develop confidence and inner strength. He provides for his family in ways he never dreamed possible–even making plans to build a home for his mother someday–and has hope for a bright future. A natural leader with a strong work ethic, he takes pride in convincing others to consider union careers; his story illustrates the way apprenticeships can change lives.

 

Just a few years ago, Le’Viege was on a completely different path. He was a student at South Seattle Community College, well on his way to a degree in logistics and transportation. He dreamed of starting a small shipping business, perhaps growing it into a fleet of trucks someday. But, as soon as he learned about apprenticeship opportunities at the union, he changed gears, signed up at the local carpenters union hall and waited eagerly to begin work. In fact, his first union dispatch arrived when he was in the middle of class, just weeks away from graduation. He packed his books, went straight to work, and never looked back.

 

Le’Viege wasn’t seeking a new career when he first heard about the opportunities with Local 41. He was happy in school and confident he would succeed. But one day, a friend mentioned there was well-paying work available in the construction industry. Le’Viege has always been strong, active, and motivated, and his friend encouraged him to investigate. Together, they met with a union representative to learn about the pay and benefits of apprenticeship. Never one to turn down a good opportunity, Le’Viege was so impressed that he immediately signed up and paid his first union dues.

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After registering with the union, Le’Viege attended a mandatory pre-apprenticeship orientation. There, he learned more about the new path he had chosen. Over one eight-hour session, he met union leaders and fellow beginners, and studied union history and apprenticeship terminology. He met with representatives from Qualstar Credit Union and the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, and learned the foundations of important safety practices.

 

While he liked everything he saw at that first orientation, several key benefits stuck out. Union members pay one flat fee for benefits, no matter how many dependents. Wages are union-negotiated, stable and predictable, and raises come regularly. Le’Viege felt a weight lift as he realized he would not have to worry about providing health insurance, he would no longer have to fight to earn a living wage. It was a dream come true.

But perhaps the biggest selling point for Le’Viege was the chance to earn college credit from his apprenticeship. All apprentices in his program, upon completion of training, can earn an associate degree by taking just four more courses at Renton Technical College. After learning what union membership and an apprenticeship would do for his future, he said “this is the career for me. I was sold completely, that very first day. If I had known about the unions at 18, I would have joined at once. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for everything I’ve been able to do. But the apprenticeship opens doors to so many incredible opportunities.”

 

Once Le’Viege joined the union, applied for an apprenticeship, and registered on the out-of-work list, he had to wait a year for a spot to open. In 2012, when he signed up, the economy was coming out of a recession, and construction projects were stalled across Washington. But, he had high scores on the entrance exam, interviews, and other qualifications for his apprenticeship, so in January 2014, when development resumed and companies started hiring, he was one of the first to be called to work.

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He admits, in retrospect, that there was an easier path than the one he chose. People willing to work without benefits can take advantage of a “fast track” into apprenticeship: a utility worker, or laborer, position. It offers the same pay as a first-period apprenticeship, and aside from a wait for benefits, the utility workers are, in all other ways indistinguishable from apprentices. They network, learn on the job, and earn good pay. When an apprenticeship becomes available, they can transfer into it. Had Le’Viege done this, he would have started in carpentry immediately, instead of having to wait a year.

Aside from not knowing he could have taken advantage of the utility worker program, Le’Viege has no regrets. He has tracked his progress since starting his apprenticeship, and reflects with pride: “I look back at where I started, and I can see how much better I’ve become at my job, how much I’ve learned, and how much easier things are. I was nervous in the beginning–I think everyone is–but now that I’m in my last year, I feel like part of the team. I’m comfortable, I love my job, and every day I go home with a sense of accomplishment. It is amazing.

“I love being a role model, too. When I’m on my way home, people notice my uniform and often ask questions. I see how people light up when they hear about my work, and I get so much respect for my role as a union apprentice. I want to inspire youngsters to begin apprenticeships. I always tell them that it’s demanding work, but the goal is reachable, and the commitment is worth it. I’ve helped four people, so far, into the union, and every one of them loves their job. It feels good to give back.”

Le’Viege looks forward to a future with the union. He can see a promising career ahead, with a great salary and affordable health care. Besides continuing his work as a carpenter, he dreams of getting more education, so that as he grows older, he can give his body a break and work more with his mind. And, he sees himself doing outreach for the union, working to educate the public about carpentry, Local 41, and apprenticeships, and inspiring younger generations to think about paths other than college after high school.

As for anyone else considering this path, Le’Viege says, “do not hesitate to go for it. Do not fall for the common misperceptions about this career: that it doesn’t pay well, or it’s only for someone who can’t get through college, or that the unions prevent opportunity. That is totally wrong, and people miss out on amazing careers when they believe that kind of thing. We make real money, real college is involved, and there is a real chance to use your brain, to improve your life in every way, and to become a role model.

“It is demanding work, and if you don’t want to work hard every day, then it’s not the right job for you. But if you’re willing to work hard, you won’t regret it. If you don’t like carpentry, look into other trades. There is a place for everyone: male or female, single or married, fresh out of high school or 40 years old and trying something new. Now is the time to go for it; give it a chance and you won’t regret it. The things I’ve earned for myself since becoming an apprentice are priceless, and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without the union.”

 

Megan Quint