Building PA Podcast Season 1, Episode 9: Cement Masons Apprenticeship Training Program

“On a scale of 1 to 10, we always shoot for a 10.”

This was such a cool interview. Listening to Ron Stefaniak, I could just picture a concrete pour on an early morning jobsite as he spoke. Some people work but don’t like what they do and some people do like the work they’re in, but when you meet someone who has a strong passion for their profession it’s awesome to hear. I even felt the passion for concrete come through while reading this transcript. I can envision a perfectly poured floor when Ron says: “on a scale of 1 to 10, we always shoot for a 10.” Enjoy the transcript, but as great as it is to read Ron’s words nothing beats the passion in his voice. Listen hear: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/269-building-pa-podcast-61501833/episode/apprenticeship-training-cement-masons-61532370/

Chris Martin (00:00):

Welcome to the Building PA Podcast. I am sitting here with Jon O’Brien, my partner. My name is Chris Martin. I’m with Atlas Marketing. Good morning. How’s it going? Good, good morning. And I am with Ron Stefaniak. Well, I should say we are with Ron Stefanik, who’s the apprenticeship coordinator with the Plasterers and Cement Masons, correct? I apologize.

Ron Stefaniak:

Yep.

Chris Martin:

So Ron, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got here. Okay.

Ron Stefaniak (00:31):

I was taught by the greatest generation. That was my uncles who came back from the second World War and they were such an influence on me because they were my heroes. So naturally I listened to the stories every night at that dinner table. Even though mom wanted me to go to college, I did go to college and I got my degree, but that inside of me still I said I wanted to do construction. So lo and behold, after all these years, 40 years as a Cement Mason, but totally 51 years, because I started out as a Laborer out of Kittanning, PA in 1952. So that’s where I’m at this point in my life.

Chris Martin (01:13):

That is so… I love how you talk about the greatest generation and how you got here in terms of the influence from your uncles. That’s great because we know that is very typical in the construction industry. So what made you choose to become a Cement Mason?

Ron Stefaniak (01:33):

Okay so the thing about it is, at the time that I graduated or whatever, that’s when the Pittsburgh steel industry was in a downturn and we didn’t have the Renaissance yet, like we had today. So it was very easy for me, I started off with an office job with Babcock and Wilcox, and I knew that making out checks and doing time sheets wasn’t my cup of tea. I had to be out there with the excitement sounds of construction and the beep beep beeps and all that kind of stuff. So I followed my heart and I fell in. My mum passed away and my dad was still in the industry. And I said, no greater thing to be able to work with your father. So that’s why I evolved into that. The cement makes it, my dad would have been electrician or whatever. I would have followed them that way because he was my hero. And that’s why I chose to stay with the you know, the concrete end of it. So it’s because of my father.

Chris Martin (02:35):

And I liked that too, because all the unions that we work with and say with Jon and the KCA and everything, everybody has that family story.

Ron Stefaniak (03:00):

And that’s the nice thing about the union side of construction is that brother, that hey tomorrow, I’m going to put my arm around you. We’re going to show you how to do this. So you’re not going to fail. And I can, you know, as the apprenticeship coordinator, that’s part of what you’re doing, you know, on a daily basis. Exactly.

Jon O’Brien:

How long did it take you to become the apprenticeship coordinator?

Ron Stefaniak:

Well it was actually okay. About 30 years I was in the field. Okay. And so I’ve been an apprentice coordinator for going on nine, actually going on 10 years. So if you take the 10 from the 40 years of concrete and simple math, that’s about what I was out and field for about 30 years. Doing floors, doing chimneys, doing well, you name it exposed me to a lot of different things over the years, so who better to teach the next generation, right? Yeah. Yeah. And as long as the passion is still there, as long as the passion, and then there’s such an opportunity for these young people today, that it’s unbelievable. And I want to make sure that, you know, I always say on my tombstone, I want it to be ‘Ron, did everything he could to perpetuate unionism on planet earth’ and I’ll be happy that these young kids followed my path. Right. That’s great. Great.

Jon O’Brien (04:20):

Very good. Speaking of young kids, let’s reach out to them and let’s focus on them for a little bit. So like what can they expect if they wanted to be a Cement Mason? Like what’s a Cement Mason do nowadays, what’s the training, like just kinda touch on that a little bit.

Ron Stefaniak (04:37):

Okay. So we look at, you have to, you have to be like an active type person and we don’t make you take a test, but when I interview, I want to see that sort of I need that look in your eyes that says, ‘yeah, I’m an outdoors person.’ I played a team sport because concrete is a team activity. It’s just like playing football or whatever. I’m looking for somebody that is not afraid of a challenge every day. You’re going to get challenged with the wind, the rain, the snow and the batching plant and all these things you have to, you can’t be that kind of place, a complacent person that says, ‘Oh, you know what I don’t want that kind of challenge.’ So I look at all these different things. Some of them are students, aren’t A students.

Ron Stefaniak (05:31):

They’re C, B students, but that doesn’t hold them back from not being dynamite workers, because a lot of them really didn’t like school, you know? And now I don’t hold that because some of my best workers are C and D students. So, I want to make sure I give them that opportunity. Maybe I don’t see something right away, but I get them out in the field and all of that light bulb comes on and it’s like, and that’s already happened to me. So we give them every opportunity to spread their wings and flying at the business, especially now when we all need workers that are willing to work and get a sustainable income, families is standing income for you know, and so that’s what we look for.

Jon O’Brien (06:21):

Absolutely. Absolutely. So is there anything a high school student could do now while they’re in school to prepare to become a Cement Mason?

Ron Stefaniak (06:30):

Well, yeah. When we interview I normally have somebody from one of the either the heavy highway or the builders trade that comes over and what we look at, we look at attendance, we look at that’s a big thing because that demonstrates the ability to want to learn. And if I get an apprentice out there and if he’s bucking me all the time and he doesn’t want to listen, well, then he’s not gonna learn. So I tell them naturally it’s good to you know, have good math skills and science skills, but that’s not a big thing in our business because, you know, we’re going to electrician to brain workers. We’re making calculations all the time. We’re more or less the type of guys that are like you know, I got girls in our custom cross-country skiers, and I got guys that are traders in a gym that was very active people that can sit still. That’s what I want to see. As a young person, no complacency because there’s no room for complacency when that paving machine starts going, you gotta have to be able to run with it and know that you’re that kind of person, that this is my challenge for today, and this is what I want to do, and I’m not going to get beat up, you know? So that’s what we’re really,

Jon O’Brien (08:04):

What have you seen over your 10 years as the training director, as far as the type people that are entering the program, people looking to get into the program, have you seen a shift at all as the economy has changed over the last 10 years?

Ron Stefaniak (08:19):

Absolutely. First of all, we preach, like my mum used to say, ‘till we’re blue in the face’, cleats you kid. So we preached to the guidance counselors in the high schools, and we say, listen you know, everybody wants their child to go to college, but yet there’s students out there that aren’t college material that want to work with their hands. And so please encourage them if they don’t want to go to college. I don’t want them sitting at home watching reruns of going in dial-in in her mom’s basement. And I want them to know that the building trades, 16 of us, there are workers: boilermakers, cement masons, on and on, and whatever that they’re going to be able to come in there and we’re going to embrace them and tell them, yes, we need warm bodies. We need people.

Ron Stefaniak (09:15):

And you’re the type of person that wants to work, we’re going to show you how to make family-sustaining wages. And it’s a very warm situation that you know, all the ethnic groups of females or whatever, everybody has an opportunity. Unlike it’s ever been in my 40 years, it’s never been like this. It’s like, you know, when we’re begging them, people that say, come on, you know, and join the trades. And so that’s it’s so exciting. And right now it’s off the chart. As far as like these Cracker Plants, heavy highway, there is a need to do so many bridges in so many ways, like two years ago Pennsylvania, if he did we’d repair 600 bridges in so much time. So all of a sudden the money’s there and we’re going to deal with

Jon O’Brien (10:07):

Absolutely. Yeah. It’s a very, very exciting time for the industry, for sure. So yeah, you find, you know, a high school grad, he’s motivated, he’s excited. He wants to work out in the field. What’s he to expect the first year when it comes to training. And I heard a little rumor, you guys earn while you learn, so you might want to throw that in there too. But yeah, what’s the first year to expect?

Ron Stefaniak (10:33):

Okay. The first year kids, what we do is we take, put them through a pre-apprenticeship for two weeks. Pre-Apprenticeship we make sure they have OSHA 10, so they’re safe. We make sure they have CPR, AED and first day we take them out that week. We show them how to pound pins, set forms. They’re not going to be homerun hitters in two weeks, but they’re not going to be like a deer in the headlights either. They’re good, but we get their toe in the water. So then after two weeks, we put them on the out of work list. And then our contractors, our signatory contractors, we encourage them. Here’s young people. We need to get them to work. And so as June and July and August comes and we place these apprentices with the signatory contractors, whether it be heavy highway or building trade, and then that’s their opportunity to learn in real time, not just in a classroom setting, but in real time, all the sights and sounds, and smells and everything that’s involved in being on the job. That’s the beauty of apprenticeship.

Chris Martin (11:54):

And in that pre-apprenticeship period, a two week period, are they mostly in the classroom versus on the job? Which again, on Jon’s question, what can they expect there?

Ron Stefaniak (12:00):

What we do is we’ll about the first week we make them safe. Okay. We get them in a classroom. Then the second week we’ll go to like there might be a contractor out there that needs a section of driveway poured at his facility. We have a place down in Millville, Pittsburgh, mobile that has batches, he has a batching trucks and he’ll batch us 20 yards of concrete or whatever. And we’ll pour a section there. He always has something to pour. So that second week we actually take them on a jobsite forms and create real time, you know? And so the date that they have a real idea of just not, we first start them out in wet sand, just like you do. And at the beach, we start them off at wet sand and show them exactly how to straight edge, how to edge and everything. And then the next step is you. And then like that’s what we do the second week. We’ll find him something to pour. And sometimes we’ll even do community stuff like dugouts and little league field, or a set of steps or something like that, something that for a nonprofit, for profit organization. Perfect. Perfect. Yeah.

Chris Martin (13:22):

Yeah. With that said, what are some of the requirements that if I’m a high school senior hearing you talk or saying, ‘Hey, wait a second. I really want to do an adult job like this.’ What do I need to do to get involved?

Ron Stefaniak (13:37):

Okay, first of all, we cover 33 counties. So we’re not going to send you to one place to where you can get on a bus and go to work for the next 30 years. So we tell you, you have to have a driver’s license, you know, and then you have to have access to an automobile. Sometimes these young people, they don’t have any money yet. So grandma has a car, a grandfather has a car, as long as we have some sort of ownership that says, yeah, you know, an owner’s card, it says they have the ability to go to work social security card. Absolutely. They have to have it. We can take your applications before they’re 18 and get all the preliminaries done, but we can’t send them to work till they’re 18. So that’s a, you know, we can train them, we can get them ready, but then by June, the first after we get done with pre-apprenticeship in April, then they have to be ready. And you have to have a high school diploma or GED. And so we tell them, work on this. So it’s all out of the way. So there’s no roadblocks or obstacles to us getting you into the workforce.

Jon O’Brien (14:54):

And like you said, it’s a great time to get in.

Ron Stefaniak (15:00):

So I don’t know why you wouldn’t, let me leave you with this thought. So I asked myself, why did I decide to do this? I remember when I was in Catholic school, the nuns wanted me, they said, I liked art and they wanted to be an artist. Well, now I tell these young people that when I’m going to career fairs and stuff like that, I say our portrait is on the ground. Okay. My portrait is that concrete comes out of the truck and it looks like mother’s art or whatever at the end of the day, there’s your portrait. And so that’s the excitement, I look at myself as an artist. If I’m going to do your driveway or if I’m going to do you want to see some words street, go to Las Vegas and you’ll see, pervious concrete, you’ll see colored concrete, you’ll see polished concrete.

Ron Stefaniak (15:56):

And that’s just one example of the beauty of what we could do with something to I’ve got at a truck in the morning. So that’s what always floated my boat as far as taking something and developing a portrait. And so it’s that wow, that I do that at the end of the day, you know? And if you have the right team and mother nature support you as far as the beautiful day, no rain, no wind, all that kind of stuff. Then everything falls in line and it’s like, then you’re, you know, you’re happy, you know, you’re yeah. On a scale of one to 10, we always shoot for a 10. And so all those different things have to line up mother nature in a batching plant the correct amount of team work, you know, and so on and so forth.

Ron Stefaniak (16:46):

And then it’s like, yeah, I did my homework and everything’s great. So that’s it, every day is a challenge every day. And you have to have that kind of person that’s willing to accept that challenge. Just like it’s like the Steelers are playing somebody, you gotta be ready to go. That’s the way our industry is.

Chris Martin:

And yeah, I really love what you just said though, about how you were at you coming out of high school, you were in art, you liked art. You were really there, and you can apply that to the Cement Masons and your line of work. So any high school senior high school, junior out there, boy or girl, she can relate to that. And I think that’s important to help some of the younger kids now understand that you’re not going to go out on the job site and just be this nonstop hammer nails, and doing all these things. There’s an art form to it. There is a beauty to it. So thank you for sharing that. I think that’s great. That’s really good.

Jon O’Brien (17:44):

The market’s good. And the Cement Masons are looking for a future artists. So look them up

Ron Stefaniak (17:50):

I like that.

Chris Martin (17:51):

And if you’re interested in becoming a cement artist reach out to our friend here, Ron Stefanik. How can kids get a hold of you?

Ron Stefaniak (18:01):

Okay. First of all we have a website it’s www.opcmia526.org. Okay. And you can also look on the Builder’s Guild or apprentice order, but the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania, it’s very elaborate. And they highlight all the trades. So, if I get a young person that maybe not sure of wanting to be at Cement Mason, I just say, listen, we want you in our union family. So, we want you to follow your heart. So make yourself happy and pick one of the trades. If I’m not one of them, I still feel you’re in good hands because there’s no bad picks in the building trades of western Pennsylvania, none. You know what? You’re in. good hands.

Chris Martin (18:51):

That’s true. True.  Great advice for our young folks who are considering a construction trade. So thank you. Thank you. Well, thank you for joining us today on the Building PA Podcast and Ron, thank you for stopping by. I appreciate it. Thanks a lot, Ron, and tune into our next podcast. Again, that’s the Building PA Podcast and have a great day. Thank you.

Author: buildingpa

I am the proud father of three amazing daughters and I'm married to an awesome lady. When I'm not hanging with the family, I'm the executive director for the Keystone Contractors Association.

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