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“These Times are a Changin’!”

Safety, training and a growing workforce.

Beard David

Earlier this month I attended the joint conference between the Metal Building Contractors & Erectors Association (MBCEA) and the Metal Building Manufacturers Association (MBMA) in San Antonio. If you are in the industry and have never attended, I highly recommend that you do. The networking and educational opportunities are endless.

Much of the discussion at the conference was how the construction industry is changing. Whenever I hear people talk about the changes in construction, my first day working as an ironworker comes to mind. It was in June 1979, and I had just graduated from high school. I was sent to a project at a powerhouse in Coffeen, Ill. A friend of my dad gave me a brand new American Bridge tool belt with a scabbard and bolt bag to go with it. If you’ve never seen an American Bridge belt from the ‘70s, it was a woven nylon belt with a quick-release buckle. On the left side of the buckle, there was a nylon rope lanyard spliced through a pocket in the belt, similar to the eye of a choker. The lanyard was about 8 feet long without a hook on the end. The end was simply melted so it would not fray.

Safety First

After I signed up and put the belt together, it was time to get up on the iron. That was when I received my first safety advice. An elderly coworker said, “Boy, cut that lanyard off that belt so it does not hang up and pull you off the iron when you are walking around.” Yep, that was the extent of my safety training and that was exactly what I did. It was four or five more years before anyone seriously suggested tying off.

I don’t think any of us can imagine a scenario like that happening today. As the construction industry has evolved, the Iron Workers International along with their labor-management affiliate, Ironworkers Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT), made a commitment to develop safety and training programs to better support our members and contractors.

Training, especially safety training, has turned into an industry in itself. It is extremely expensive for companies of any size to build and implement adequate safety training programs to keep up with ever-changing OSHA regulations and industry practices. Our full-time, professional safety department assists contractors, local training centers and end users in setting up programs that satisfy OSHA requirements. The staff works directly with contractors and members on safety-related issues such as OSHA 10, OSHA 30, Subpart R (Steel Erection), fall protection, scaffold training, fork truck, hazmat, lead, decking zones, confined space and many more. The department has also created an alliance with OSHA to raise awareness of OSHA’s training and education programs to proactively mitigate enforcement actions.

Continuous Training

Safety is only the beginning of building a well-trained workforce. Ironworker locals operate 154 training centers across the U.S. and Canada. In 2017, the Iron Workers International, IMPACT and the individual locals spent more than $80 million training nearly 20,000 apprentices and probationary members, while also providing courses for journeymen to upgrade their skills. Our training department constantly updates the training curriculum to meet the demands of contractors and owners. They work hand-in-hand with government agencies, private accrediting agencies and manufacturers to certify our members in an array of skills. The certifications reward the ironworker for his or her efforts, and provide a contractor with assurance that the ironworker is able to perform a number of specialized skills with expertise and safety.

To assist owners and contractors, we have also developed a database containing our members’ certifications. The database can be accessed from any computer or smart device. Each member carries an ID card with a QR code on it. To find a member’s certifications, simply scan the code with a smart device to view his or her certifications. The contractor can print the documentation if desired.

Labor Shortage

Another topic at the conference and major change in the industry is the lack of people looking to construction as a career. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was not uncommon for 400 or more people to apply every year to my local’s apprenticeship. Unfortunately, today that number is closer to 100. Simply putting an ad in the paper is no longer sufficient. We still advertise, but we also engage the community. By attending high school and trade school career fairs, ex-offender workshops and various other community events, we reach people who would otherwise have no knowledge of the trade. It also assists in maintaining a high level of diversity in our workforce.

One more way the ironworkers are combating workforce shortages is by teaming up with “Helmets to Hardhats,” the construction industry initiative that provides career opportunities to veterans of the Armed Forces. Former military men and women make ideal apprenticeship candidates because they are educated, drug free and have a record of dependability. In addition, they already have many skills and are often trained in leadership and diversity. “Helmets to Hardhats” links military experience to apprenticeship programs and gives former military personnel a chance at a rewarding and challenging career. Veterans deserve our assistance and the ironworkers want to show appreciation to these men and women.

The Iron Workers International and IMPACT are excited about the future of both ironworking and the metal building industry. By partnering with our contractors, we have developed a program that ensures a safe, well-trained and diverse workforce. The future is bright.

If you would like more information about any of our programs please visit ironworkers.org, impact-net.org or contact me directly at dbeard@iwintl.org.


David Beard is the metal building representative for the Iron Workers International and president of Iron Workers District Council of St. Louis and Vicinity. He spent 24 years working in the field and has been active in the union leadership since 2003. For more information, go to www.ironworkers.org.