New Sweat: Union Initiative is Changing the face of Blue Collar Labor

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 “Perseverance is what you need,” said Lou Brock Jr. “Whatever drives you, use it to win this game.”

Lou Brock Jr. was not speaking to young football players. He was not speaking to fans of his father’s famous Cardinals career.

On August 10, 2020, Lou Brock Jr., owner of Lou Brock Mechanical, spoke to the 14 candidates of the CHAMPIONS Initiative, a collaborative effort from the Mechanical Contractors Association of Eastern Missouri, the Plumbing Industry Council, and UA Local 562 to develop a more diverse workforce in St. Louis.

The name stands for Creating Hometown Advantages through Minority Participation in Our Neighborhood. The program was designed by MCA, PIC, and Local 562 to help get local St. Louisans from diverse backgrounds on a fast-track into the plumbing, mechanical, and pipefitting trades.

The collaborative goal of the MCA-EMO, PIC, and Local 562 has been to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone interested in joining the trades.

Unlike similar programs, the CHAMPIONS Initiative has provided extensive mentorship, paid training, and sponsored job placements by participating contracting companies, such as Lou Brock Mechanical.

Steve Faust, business development and diversity coordinator for icon Mechanical—a Local 562 signatory contractor and sponsor of the CHAMPIONS program—played a key role in the program’s development.

“As we looked ahead at our industry’s work in the city of St. Louis over the next few years, we realized we need a continuing, larger, and more diverse workforce,” Faust said.

Because of these key differences, each of the 14 CHAMPIONS have not only successfully passed the first, intensive, six-week training course, but they also are now all working as pre-apprentices on job sites around St. Louis.

In August, their pre-apprenticeship will end, and they will begin the five year apprenticeship program to become proven journeymen and journeywomen.

Less than a year after Lou Brock Jr. spoke, it’s clear that the CHAMPIONS Initiative is the perfect fuel for their fire.

Chasing Dreams, Building a Future: The CHAMPIONS Initiative Opens the Door.

For some of the CHAMPIONS, like Joshua Temple, the program makes the impossible possible.

“I’ve been boxing for over 18 years now,” Temple said. “I started boxing when I was 10 years old. To be an Olympian, that was always a dream and an accomplishment I wanted to achieve.”

Where did Temple get his dream?

“It was something I did with my father,” he said. “It was a family thing. All the males in my family are boxers. I just took it a little more seriously. Not that I was the only one that took it seriously—they also won national championships. I just took it a lot further than my brothers.”

Temple has had more than just boxing on his mind, however.

“I come from a second-generation of plumbers, pipefitters,” he said. “My father, he used to do a lot of powerhouses. He would take me to the job sites. I would visit him when he would work off in Nebraska. I had a little bit of understanding, but by far I did not understand at all what he did.”

As Temple considered his own future, he reflected on his father’s history.

“I watched him retire,” Temple said, “and just looked at the lifestyle he was able to provide for me and my family.”

He was not the only one trying to straddle two worlds.

“My brothers also tried to pipefit and box,” Temple said, “but everyone has their own life decisions. They chose pipefitting, and they’re doing really good. They’re both journeyman inside the union now.”

Temple’s journey has not always been easy.

“I went to two years of college on a boxing scholarship,” Temple said. “After returning in 2013, I was always boxing. I was working, but just hopping from job to job.”

Temple wanted to join Local 562, like his father and brothers, but he didn’t want to give up on his dreams.

“I was always saying—hey, hey, yeah, I want to join and get inside the union,” he said, “but they always persuaded me to stick with my boxing dreams. I ended up competing in the 2016 Olympic trials, and they were supporting me. But after that, I was back hopping from job to job.”

Now, because of the CHAMPIONS Initiative, Temple is able to do both.

“With my boxing,” Temple said, “I wasn’t really finding the opportunity to get more involved with 562. Thanks to MCA, I was able to get inside the union and start a career.”

Whether it’s boxing or pipefitting, Temple dreams big.

“I definitely, hopefully look froward, being a minority in this business, to one-day owning a contracting company,” Temple said.

Whether it’s boxing or pipefitting, however, Temple thinks about his father.

“Maybe it’s hard to get off the ground,” he said, “but my father never looked forward to that. It’s a new generation, though, and I see it a lot in my generation—we’re all hard workers and everyone wants to think of the next step.”

New Ground: The CHAMPIONS Initiative Helps Break Down Barriers

For other CHAMPIONS, the program represents a different kind of change.

“Going to college, I thought I wanted to be a book editor,” CHAMPION Megan Evergreen said. “I thought I was going to have an office job and be happy with that, and then I wasn’t.”

First, Evergreen looked for anything better.

“I was barista-ing,” she said. “I loved talking to people. I loved meeting people. I love working with my hands. I loved that part of the job. It’s just…$11 an hour is not really sustainable and didn’t really offer any sort of path forward.”

When several of her friends began a cooperative to start rebuilding homes in downtown St. Louis, Evergreen began to look at her career in a new way.

“I remember thinking,” Evergreen said, “it’s not common for women, but what barriers are there really to me learning some of these skills that I wasn’t brought up with and learning construction and doing that as a career?”

As it would turn out, many.

“A decent amount of people get into the trades by knowing someone who is in it,” Evergreen said, “but for me, as a woman very much outside this—I don’t have any family in the trades—it was all very opaque and mysterious, and I didn’t know how I was going to get in. Which is part of why it took me so long. When I was talking to people, I was asking, should I just start cold-calling carpenter contractors and see if they’re hiring? How is that going to work? How are they going to be persuaded to take me on?”

Undaunted, Evergreen took her first steps toward a new career.

“I knew through some online research about Missouri Women in Trades,” she said, “and I went to a couple meetings. I heard about other women’s experiences, and went to a few workshops, and I learned—okay, I can do this.”

With connections, Evergreen found opportunity.

“So, I got connected to Missouri Women in Trades,” she said, “and through that, the BUD program—Building Union Diversity.”

The Building Union Diversity program is a five-week construction pre-apprenticeship program led by the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council. Evergreen Entered the program in February of 2020.

“It was hard. My program was five weeks. You’re pretty much expected to be there 40 hours a week, and it’s not paid,” she said. “If you’re working a paycheck to paycheck job, you have to save up prior to that to get through that program, on the hopes that at the end someone will hire you. And then, for me, COVID happened.”

Evergreen kept hoping.

“One day I got a call from Fred Searcy at Local 562 saying they were wanting to do this program they were calling CHAMPIONS,” she said. “If I could make it work until August, then I knew I could get into a really strong union.”

A light had appeared at the end of the tunnel.

“It was about five months of uncertainty, thinking maybe I’m not going to get into the trades after all,” she said. “Even though it made it harder in that short term stretch, I interviewed for the CHAMPIONS program. And I got in. I felt so lucky. I think 100 people applied, and there were just 14 slots.”

Now, after so many hurdles, Evergreen is working as a pre-apprentice on the St. Louis soccer stadium downtown.

“There’s definitely for me” Evergreen said, “living in the city and working in the city, a pride that I’m building part of it—to see it go up and become so intimately familiar with a building I know is going to be a big part of our city’s culture.”

Fred Searcy explains this as one of the goals of the CHAMPIONS program.

“Our recruiting focus was on people living in the city,” Searcy said. “With all the new projects coming up in the city we wanted to recruit participants that could live, work, and build in their own city, making it easier for them to get to work if they didn’t have a car, while instilling a sense of pride in their own neighborhoods.”

For both Temple and Evergreen, the pride is real.

“My Dad, he worked on the AG Edwards building,” Temple said. “I remember going there to pick him up, and every time I go past I can go—hey, my Dad built that building. I haven’t worked on any new construction, but now I can go past a building and say—hey, I worked on that building right there.”

Evergreen shares a similar outlook.

“This is what St. Louis needs right now,” Evergreen said. “It offers such a great opportunity to build a better life and to build a better St. Louis.”

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