Carpenter training center thriving, even during pandemic

by Wendy Turrell

The Ohio Carpenters’ Joint Apprenticeship Training Program occupies an imposing building tucked away on the corner of Maple Drive and Brecksville Road. The Richfield center is a hive of activity, where future carpenters and millwrights take basic classes and practical workshops, then specialize in a craft like commercial or residential carpentry, pile driver, floor coverer or cabinetmaker.

The entire apprenticeship program is free for the students, paid for by a fee paid by members of Indiana-Kentucky-Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters.

The Richfield career-training center is the largest of the four IKORCC training centers in Ohio, with 1,075 students enrolled. The other three IKORCC training centers are in Columbus, Monroe and Rossford, for a total of 2,400 students statewide.

The program’s State Director of Education Dan Sustin said all apprentices attend one weeklong, 40-hour class every quarter. “So each apprentice will attend four classes per year, for four years. All of the other weeks between classes are spent working for their contractor, where they are getting on-the-job experience, as well as earning their wages and benefits,” he explained. Each student is assigned to a contractor and begins working for them for three months, before taking their first apprenticeship class.

Sustin described the program’s unique advantage: “Apprentice pay in our area begins at $20.24 per hour, with their benefit package paid on top of that hourly rate from the contractor. Their pay rate goes up throughout their four-year apprenticeship, as they gain more experience in the field and attend their scheduled classes. Upon completion of the program, journey-level pay jumps to $33.74 per hour, with the benefit package of $22.76 on top of that.”

Sustin began as an instructor at the Richfield Training Center in 2008, before becoming training coordinator in 2018 and director of education for all four training centers in 2022. He is headquartered at the Richfield center, where the site’s spacious classrooms and workshops were constructed in 1990, with a substantial addition in 2000. “And we are almost to the point of having to build on again,” he added.

Sustin said the Apprenticeship Training Program did not slow during the financial downturn of 2008 or the more recent COVID crisis. “There is always more work than workers,” he said, remarking that when housing construction temporarily slacked off, government-funded infrastructure and healthcare projects never did.

“Apprentices are trained to be well-rounded professionals,” he explained, “So when one aspect of construction falters temporarily, they know how to do something else.”

Sustin reported that residential demand has come back since COVID. Another growth area is in Southern Ohio, where solar panel construction is booming. “Millwrights do everything from the foundation up, to constructing the panels. Everything except the actual electrical connection.”

Sustin said, “Enrollment is up and continues to climb. The average age of our apprentices is 27 years old.” This is partly because the program is gaining non-traditional students. “In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of college graduates that can’t find a job in their degree field earning a good starting wage.”

He added that a large number of veterans have transitioned out of the military as well as people who have had their jobs outsourced or downsized.

There is no upper age limit, and Sustin said he has seen people start the program in their 40s and 50s. Recently two women who were formerly travel agents began the apprentice program.

“Although they take a test at the end of each formal class, instruction is weighted toward practical applications,” he continued.

As an instructor, he enjoys seeing his students’ confidence grow when they realize they are able to learn applications for skills they thought they were not good at, like math.

Sustin said there are different avenues into the program. “If someone is a veteran, has documented prior experience, or has attended one of our 162 career connections partner schools, they can get enrolled right away.”

There is no application fee, and the program will help students find a contractor to work for. Applicants must have a high school diploma or GED, pass a drug test, and have a state-issued photo ID.

The training center is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-4 p.m., and applications can be filled out in person or on the website, ∞

Dan Sustin is the director
of the Richfield
Ohio Carpenters’ Apprenticeship
Program and is also
the state director.
Doug Martinec teaches cabinet making.
Jason Powers teaches the millwright
class, preparing students for a different
aspect of building. Photos by W. Turrell.