Sunday, April 11, 2010

New York City District Council of Carpenters helps carpenters earn college degrees

BY Jonathan Balthaser

Alex Johnson doesn't crumble working under often brutal conditions, erecting walls, joining girders and welding steel as a carpenter.

But his first day of college terrified him.

"I was scared as hell," said the 33-year-old Bronx resident. "I didn't think I could do it."

Johnson enrolled last September in a special two-year-old program organized through the New York City District Council of Carpenters that helps members earn associate's and bachelor's degrees.

Students take classes in Tribeca at the State University of New York 's Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies, a program that focuses on educating trade workers.

Carpenters always have been able to attend the school. But now apprenticeship classes taken at the Council of Carpenters Labor Technical College count for as much as 32 college credits, so most students matriculate with half of their degree already completed.

"The incentive of the 32 credits was huge," said Johnson, a carpenter for the past 11 years. "In my eyes, it would be stupid for me not to do it. If I'm giving it to you on a silver platter and you don't take it, that's dumb."

Mike Merrill, the dean of the Van Arsdale Center, said it was high time that technical colleges received college accreditation.

"Wage earners are disadvantaged in that their apprenticeship programs don't usually count for college credit," said Merrill. "Dancers and painters, for instance, their work is recognized. I don't see the difference, except in ideology."

The carpenters union is getting each of its apprenticeship programs evaluated for college credit by the National Program on Noncollegiate Sponsored Instruction, a state-run group that accredits educational programs conducted by noncollegiate organizations.

The millwrighting, cabinetmaking, and building and construction carpentry programs have been approved. College credit will soon be considered for dockbuilders, piledrivers, and timbermen.
The carpenters union is making a concentrated push to educate more of its members.

"The union movement needs college-educated leaders at all levels, including the rank-and-file. It cannot effectively represent or be advocates for the interest of working people and their families without confident, articulate, well-educated leaders who know who they are, what they believe in, and what they have to do to secure their fair share," union promotional material states.

So far, 30 students have enrolled in the program, and the first is set to graduate with a bachelor's degree in June.

At the Van Arsdale campus, carpenters take a range of general education courses, including several that focus specifically on the history of the labor movement.

"You go to college not to leave the union, but to lead it," Merrill said.

Like all other college students, one of the greatest burdens for carpenters is financial.

Classes at SUNY cost $207 per credit, so tuition will set back students at least $6,600. The carpenters union currently does not offer scholarships.

Johnson made it through his first day of school, and now says the associate's degree he's pursuing is just the first step of his college education. After he graduates, he is interested in construction management or becoming a union organizer.

"When I'm done, I'm going to continue to go to school," he said. "I'm going to go all the way. Maybe Ph.D. Go for it. Why the hell not?

"My biggest mistake was putting a limit on myself."

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