Introduction: In the Fall of 2016, I became the executive director of the Keystone Contractors Association. In this position I was introduced to the world of the trustee. I became a trustee on medical plans, pension funds, apprenticeship committees, etc. It was a lot to soak in as it was completely new to me. It’s been my experience that no one wants anyone to drown in the construction industry and lifelines can be thrown when needed. As was the case in becoming a trustee on so many plans, I was overwhelmed by the support I received from the industry as many were ready to help me. One person who I got to know during this time was Irwin Aronson. As legal counsel on many funds, with lots of experience, he knows what he’s talking about in this area. Over the years, talking to him about medical, retirement and training funds, a light bulb went off that our industry offers such great reasons to join a building trades union – those reasons come in the form of awesome benefits like healthcare coverage, pension and education; but not everyone realizes what a selling point these benefits are. I contacted Irwin with this idea to have a podcast episode to talk about these benefits and he said: “that could be good but let me think about it and I’ll let you know who I think would be the best person for you to interview.” That’s when I told Irwin that he’s the best person to interview. Check out this episode and let me know if you agree with me: The Benefits of Joining the Building Trades.
Chris Martin (00:00):
Hello and welcome to the next episode, if you will, of the Building Pennsylvania podcast, a podcast that is specific to the construction industry in Pennsylvania. My name is Chris Martin and I’m with Atlas Marketing, where we tell stories for people who build things. And with me is my partner. Hello, Jon O’Brien.
Hey, I’m checking in. Jon from the Keystone Contractors Association and ready to rock and roll for another episode.
Yeah. Yeah. We have a real exciting, very energetic interviewer with us today. Irwin Aronson with the law firm of Willig Williams and Davidson. He’s a partner in residence in Irwin. Thank you for joining us. Welcome. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the firm?
Irwin Aronson (00:49):
Sure. Be happy to thanks for having us. First of all, I appreciate being here and particularly being with my old friend, Jon, who does things that are so admirable that I am touched by them every day are from, is just the way you paid me to say it, right?
Absolutely. You nailed it.
Our firm concentrates its practice in labor employment and employee benefit law. And I concentrate my practice within the firm precisely in that space. I typically for ethical reasons, I don’t discuss who my clients are, but a few of them are pretty well known. And my clients have identified me or pointed me out as their lawyers. So I can name those I’m general counsel of the Pennsylvania AFL CIO, and I’m general counsel to the Pennsylvania State Building and Construction Trades Council of Unions. As well as a number of both of those organizations, local and regional affiliates throughout Pennsylvania, and the work that I do ranges from representing labor organizations in collective bargaining in grievance arbitration and in litigation and before both the National Labor Relations Board.
Irwin Aronson (02:08):
And in other instances, particularly in the public sector, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, but a very significant portion of my practice as well as in the representation of employee benefit funds, typically jointly trusteed labor management funds in the space of pension and retirement plans associated annuity plans, health and welfare plans that provide healthcare and other insurance benefits to workers and their families and jointly trusteed training and development programs, particularly in the building and construction trades where we train both apprentices and journey people in their various trades ranging from laborers to carpenters, to elevator constructors, to electricians, the plumbers, pipe fitters, welders, painters, paper hangers, other finishing trades, travel trades like tile setters and show on the entire gamut of building and construction trades training programs. And those typically just like the employee benefit plans are jointly sponsored labor management committees. And I’m blessed that I’m not only trusted by the union sides of those equations, but also typically by the employer and employer organization association sides of those as well. So that’s basically the areas in which I try to work and I’ve been doing it for a while. I’m at this for a little over 40 years now, so I’m beginning to learn it and that’s why I still call it practice, I guess.
Chris Martin (03:56):
Let me ask you this and then I’m going to back away and let Jon do it who I know has a lot of questions real quick. Why should young people enter our industry, why should they even care about a trust fund or their employment packages or let’s, how can we frame that for our young listeners that are out there thinking, well, why do I want to listen to Irwin today?
Irwin Aronson (04:23):
Well, why I want to listen to Irwin today is a very different question from the one that you initially teed up. I’ve listened to me for decades and I would pass on that anytime. But that’s another story why young people should be looking at what we’re talking about today has literally a plethora of reasons and rationales. First of all people get an opportunity to be trained in a trade or a vocation that is highly skilled and in high demand in every single instance throughout the gambit of the trades that I mentioned and more and they get to get that training to have access to that training, not only tuition free, and it is completely tuition free, but without any debt on the other side. And they walk away after four or five years of training, depending upon the trade with a ticket as a journey person.
Irwin Aronson (05:26):
And that journey person ticket allows them to go anywhere in the world, literally and practice their craft. They have complete portability of their skillset because that’s something that once attained can never be taken away on top of all of that really wonderful reality contrasted for example, with the college experience that I had, where I got the opportunity to sit in a classroom and pay tuition. And at the other end of that pay off student loans for about decade. Are there other practical realities? These jobs are family sustaining from day one, typically an entering in a pre-apprentice in one of the recognized traditional building construction trades and crafts is earning while she or he is learning and starts out as an 18 year old or 17 year old new apprentice at about 50% of the journey person’s rate. And over the course of four to five years maximum achieve the full journey person rate.
Irwin Aronson (06:33):
But in addition to that from day one, these folks are eligible for health care benefits that not only cover the worker, but cover his or her family, spouse, children, et cetera, and are accumulating credits for pensions, and annuities that really taken together, put people in a position by the time they’re a roughly age, 50/ 55 to be able to retire with a combination of benefits that is very close to what their full time earnings are. And there are very few alternatives in the academic path, which traditionally known as the academic path that are the equal of what I’ve just described. And they, of course all carry tuition bills and loan repayment plans with them. So this is really something that my parents’ generation understood my generation didn’t understand, and this new generation that’s coming up now is beginning to get it. And it’s all enhanced rather tremendously by another practical reality, the recession of 2008, 2009 had several impacts.
Irwin Aronson (07:49):
And one of them was that it winnowed out a number of people that were coming close to the end of their careers in the building trades. And now we have a real need, a high demand for qualified applicants and qualified apprentices for whom there will be a lifetime career once they come, once they apply, get admitted to and complete an apprenticeship and training program. So to my way of thinking, this is not merely a meaningful alternative to an academic and college career. It is in many foundational way superior because you earn while you learn and you have security that no corollary brings because there’s a skillset, it being a carpenter or a millwright being an electrician or a plumber or a pipe fitter, or a sprinkler fitter or a welder that is just not the same as having a bachelor of arts in philosophy and liberal studies.
Jon O’Brien (08:46):
Agreed, agreed. And we’ve been fortunate during our early stages of this Building PA Podcast to have many training directors join us and talk about the various trades and the various trainings that happen within their own trade, in their own craft, I think, and maybe I’m wrong here, but I think the young apprentices and those individuals thinking of entering a trade, I think they understand that the training aspect and they know they’re going to get like an excellent hands on education, but it’s the unknown. The other benefits that I don’t think they grasp, especially at a younger age, like 18 you know, early twenties as far as pension medical. And I don’t know what your opinion is, but I think we need to do a better job of promoting that.
Irwin Aronson (09:38):
Well, I think that on one hand, we all need to do a better job in communicating it. But not really communicating it in the context of it’s out there. This is available, but communicating it in the context that people are, they’re a few years older than that newly admitted high school graduate identify with quite differently every 18 year old that I’ve ever met, including the four that I raised or had a hand in raising my wife, raised them. I just showed up. I think the practical reality is they’re all immortal until they’re not. And
Jon O’Brien (10:19):
Wait, you mean, that goes away.
Irwin Aronson (10:21):
I understand that it goes away, but you know Jon the ages of your kids. So I know I kind of hesitate to give you a prediction when that happens.
Irwin Aronson (10:34):
In my instance, there is a this shock that took place. And I describe it with respect to my daughter who is an adult now and has a couple of kids of her own who never really thought about the value of health insurance until she developed a very significant series of adult onset allergies, which kept her from being able to eat any number of foods ranging from citrus products, to products with eggs, to products with dairy, to products with wheat, and that testing that she went through until we got to a point of understanding what that was cost, literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. And this took place when she was a new, recent enter into the workforce. And she was fortunate that she had a job that had health insurance for which she was paying a significant out-of-pocket premium and had a big deductible.
Irwin Aronson (11:40):
And all of a sudden it grabbed her attention in a way that she had never contemplated before. And then only a couple of years later when she became pregnant with her first child. And again, was with the medical world and learning what the cost of a normal pregnancy is. She became quite grateful for that health insurance benefit that was there now in the building trades that we were just talking about a couple of minutes ago, everybody from the newest apprentice to the most senior journey person after an immediate or very short period of time is eligible for these benefits at no out of pocket costs, other than it, depending upon the trade and the particular plan, a handful of rather minimal deductibles or copays co-insurance kinds of things. And they tend to be very broad programs that cover not only medical, but prescription coverage, dental coverage, vision coverage, and often a number of other kinds of things, as well as life insurance.
Irwin Aronson (12:40):
And for somebody that’s a wage earner who has a misfortune and suffers or premature death families are really very dependent upon those life insurance proceeds as well. So this is really an amazing piece of this puzzle that young people tend not to consider either because their families have provided healthcare for them as they’ve grown up, or they have been covered by one of the areas, public sponsored programs like chip the children’s health insurance program sponsored by the state. The other piece of this puzzle is a retirement plan again, because we’re all immortal when we’re young. We don’t think about being able to support and sustain ourselves when going to work every day is no longer as easy and option either because of age or because of disability. And all of these trades sponsored programs, these jointly trusteed labor and management benefit programs have a feature of both age based retirement, typically 62 in a few cases, 65, 66, and in some cases as young as 55 with full retirement, but they also have a disability retirement feature that is not age based at all, but based upon when an unanticipated illness or an unanticipated event results in somebody not being able to work at their traditional trade or craft, and they become disabled and they become eligible under these programs for a pension, that’s the same as what it would have been had.
Irwin Aronson (14:21):
They reached normal retirement age. And again, this is an extraordinary benefit for individuals and also for families, particularly families with dependent children. So these features are there, and they’re baked into these trades and crafts along with the training that we’ve described. And along with the career, I mean I know any number of sheet metal workers, plumbers, fitters, electricians, who are easily earning eighty to a hundred thousand dollars a year, plus the benefits and the benefits that I’ve just described can be worth easily out of cost $25 to $35,000 a year. And then some, and that’s more than competitive with alternative careers. And as I say, there’s people get a skill set that no one can take away from it.
Jon O’Brien (15:15):
Yeah. That’s for sure. Yeah. Now with my role within the KCA and the industry, I’m more familiar with the general trades, you know, carpenters, laborers, carpenters, laborers, brickies. Yeah, absolutely. And it seems as though amongst those crafts and those trades, the average age of the apprentice entering the average age of entering apprentices is upper twenties.,
Irwin Aronson (15:41):
That’s my experience as well. More recently that the typical is someone who has been out of school. Often somebody who has gone to college and frequently someone who is not, but has had another career or another vocational based career and finds the laborers, for example, one that you and I get to work on together frequently finds the carpenters, finds the millwrights finds the travel trades and signs up. And those people who are in their late twenties into their early thirties are folks who typically already have a family and find that as an entering apprentice, they have an opportunity to have a family sustaining job right away more so than the jobs that they are leaving and they get a career. I have a story about this, and I don’t know, Jon, if I’ve ever told you this, how I ended up being, how I ended up being a lawyer.
Irwin Aronson (16:40):
Back when I was a youngster, 26 years of age, I had applied for an apprenticeship in the electrical workers union in Harrisburg and the business manager at the time who was somebody with whom I was acquainted because of other career activities in which I had engaged at that point called me in for an interview. And he sat me down and he said, Irwin, you’re among the best candidates for an apprenticeship that we’ve ever had during my time as a business agent. And I, at that point I had completed college. I had a bachelor’s degree from Penn State, and I still wanted to do this because I recognize that while I had a bachelor’s degree, I had absolutely no marketable skills. And at that time there was an interesting phenomenon that took place. This was long enough ago that we did not have age discrimination and employment statutes on the books.
Irwin Aronson (17:34):
So as this gentleman described how great I was and told me that he indeed assumed that if he admitted me into the program, it wouldn’t be too much longer before I’d be running for his job either to succeed him or to beat him. Which would not have been the case, but that’s a sidelight. He said, we can’t take you in, we can’t take you because you’re 26. And we have a rule in place that says, we won’t accept anybody. Who’s over 25 years of age because we want to get a career out of you. And so in those days, 25 was the cutoff for all of the highly skilled trades, but also for the for the basic trades, like carpenters and millwrights and floor layers, the soft floors, as well as wooden floor layers that has since changed because the law has changed and the organizations have changed.
Irwin Aronson (18:26):
And the relationship between the employer, contractors and the unions have changed. The result has been that people who are a bit older than I was at that time regularly apply for and regularly are admitted into apprenticeship and training programs that all of the trades, and they get a career and it may not be a 40 year career like I was looking at at that time. But I ended up going to law school because George Segall at the time out of the IBW denied me admission into the IBEW. Otherwise right now I’d be an electrician and try to figure out how to collect my pension because I’d be old enough, unlike a lawyer who never quit.
Jon O’Brien (19:03):
Okay. Interesting. I never knew that about the age. So what year are we talking about, like what timeframe
Irwin Aronson (19:09):
That would have been roughly 1980, 81, somewhere in that range. Okay. So I went to law school from 1980 to 1982, but from the fall of 80 through the spring of 82 and that was after I’d been out of college for 10 years. I spent that 10 years working at the Pennsylvania AFL CIO in various capacities. During that time, after my own union, the Service Employees in Pittsburgh had loaned me to the AFL CIO.
Jon O’Brien (19:41):
Yeah. Also amongst all the various trust funds and different funds that you sit on. Do you feel, or do you think some of them do it better as far as communicating the benefits to the general public?
Irwin Aronson (19:57):
I think that some learn from, yeah, I think that some do, and if there’s no pattern to it, we might have a bricklayers fund in Pittsburgh be very communicative or attractive. I know that there’s a pipe trades fund in Pittsburgh that is really on the cutting edge of training. They just built a new exceptional training facility. That’s been open for about a year. And they are advertising on TV attracting very high quality apprentices. But I also know in central and North central Pennsylvania, the laborers and the contractors association, like the KCA are attracting a significant number of apprentices to become construction, craft laborers, and go through that training. And that’s a relatively young apprenticeable trade. It’s only been about 24, 25 years that we had such a thing as an apprenticeship and training program for construction craft laborers.
Irwin Aronson (21:02):
I was party to the application and approval by the state of the Pennsylvania State Apprenticeship and Training Council for the very first laborers’ training program. And that is one that is sponsored jointly by KCA and the Laborers’ District Council of Eastern Pennsylvania. And they’re attracting people. Part of it is industry-based. So down in south central Pennsylvania in Chambersburg, right now, there is a very significant solar power plant being built. And there is a need for electrical workers, both journeymen and apprentices. And there has been some significant outreach there at a recognition that when somebody gets a chance to work on this job, it’s on the cutting edge of renewable power sources. And the training they get in working on that job will be training that will serve people, particularly younger people for an entire career in something that government agencies and environmental organizations, as well as typical large construction project owners, like Penn State University like major hospitals and like government agencies will be seeking out.
Irwin Aronson (22:24):
And those skills will serve those young people for a career. And they will get the opportunity to learn those skill sets while being paid a very good wage and earning those benefits we talked about and helping to sustain the training program for a coming generation that’s yet to be identified all good stuff. So there’s just a lot going on out there. And I see it every day we have in Pennsylvania that the reality of a growing gas industry and the pipelines that go along with that. And while some people have expressed some understandable concerns about the pipeline construction for another generation of us, these are family sustaining jobs. Once again, with family sustaining wages, but much more significantly their jobs on which people learn skillsets that serve them for a career, not just for a job
Jon O’Brien (23:24):
So what’d you say, Chris, are you sold or is there a certain trade you’re looking to add?
Irwin Aronson (23:28):
I mean, the age, the age was lifted so
Chris Martin (23:30):
Well, unfortunately I’m 48, so I’m probably not going to be a good a good fit based on that, but
Irwin Aronson (23:38):
You’re in and I will sponsor you myself.
Chris Martin (23:41):
Well, thank you, Irwin, when I’m in, you know, I have a funny story as well. And that point I started my, my company 11 years ago. And at the time we had been working with a lot with the iron workers and we still do. And my wife, you know, start the company in 2008, which was great time to start the company. My wife says to me, well, what’s your plan B? And I said, well, worst case scenario I’ll become an iron worker. I don’t think she stopped laughing since she keeps reminds me of that. Every day I hear this…
Irwin Aronson (24:17):
Excuse me, I’m sorry for dropping. I have this wonderful sort of idiosyncratic story. A very dear friend of mine was the, for many years, the state director of the railroad unions here in Pennsylvania. And he was more than a client. And his son was born literally two days before my daughter was born and his son went to school in Harrisburg and graduated high school with honors, went to Duquesne University, got himself a bachelor’s degree in marketing. He went back to Duquesne and got a master’s degree in education and had planned on being a teacher. And he ended up getting a job as an instructor in the academic side of a welding program that the pipe trade unions out in the Pittsburgh area had sponsored along with a company called Maglev incorporated. And in the process, this young man became exposed to a number of folks who were in the boiler makers union and had been trained on precision welding techniques.
Irwin Aronson (25:36):
And he became so enamored of them that he applied for and was admitted to the boilermakers apprenticeship and training program out in the Pittsburgh area. This is a young man with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. He went through that apprenticeship training program became the number one boiler maker, welding apprentice in the country in his fourth year of a five year program. And has since had a career where he has literally traveled all over the world on welding jobs. He’s been of course, up in Alaska on that pipeline work, both working in training people. He’s been all over the middle East on pipeline work. He’s been throughout Asia. He’s been throughout most of Europe and he’s been in South America and even in Australia. And he is earning whatever he really feels like earning as much as he feels like earning. He has already been vested in a pension program at the ripe young age of 39. And he has an extraordinary healthcare program and can basically name his own tickets. He is among the highest workers that I’ve ever met, and he earns well into the six figures any year that he chooses to good for him.
We should have him on the show.
Chris Martin (26:57):
We’ve done a lot of work with the boilermakers and I can attest to that from their international work and their travelers fund and the way that they support that the opportunities that aren’t just here in the United States, but all over the world. I know there’s a lot of big local growing in Puerto Rico, actually with all the issues that have been facing there on, in Puerto Rico. So you’re absolutely right. And it’s not just the boilermakers. It’s, it’s every trade.
Irwin Aronson (27:28):
It’s every one of the trades. I mean, one of the fascinating and unique things I’ve alluded to this earlier in this conversation that people secure a skill set through our training programs that no one can take away from them. And part of the reality is in in two instances, one is when you’re living in the Northeastern United States or in the in the Northern part of the central United States, and the weather gets cold, you have those skills. And if you want to work in Florida or work in Arizona, you have to pick up the phone or you send out an email to the sister, local union in your trade in those areas and see if they need people. And more often than not, you get a referral and you can work as a traveler in those areas and avoid the cold weather if that’s your interest, or if you want to see some spot on the planet that is just intriguing as all get out to you.
Irwin Aronson (28:24):
And, and that’s the way that is. You make the appropriate contact, you make the appropriate phone call. And these folks refer to one another as brother for a reason, and they treat one another like brothers and they make space and they make time for this to happen. And typically all of these healthcare and pension and annuity and training funds have what they refer to in the industry as reciprocity agreements. So you earn the access to your benefits in one location, but it is the funds are sent to your home area so that you don’t have any lapse in benefit eligibility or investing for a pension. And the benefits themselves are completely portable in this respect. So that’s another aspect when one works for an individual company with an individual employer sponsoring your healthcare plan. If you lose your job, you lose your benefits in these trades.
Irwin Aronson (29:23):
If you get laid off because of a short term, lack of work, your benefits continue. Typically when you’re working actively, you are in benefit credits, show that during a period of unemployment, whether it’s unemployment because of some structural issue or unemployment, because you just feel like working for a period of time, you want to knock off for a week or two for hunting season, for example, your benefits, don’t lapse, your benefits don’t get canceled. They travel with you and they’re completely portable both for traveling and work in both and in terms of periods of layoff or downturn. So it’s another feature that people just don’t realize.
Jon O’Brien (30:02):
Yeah. Another great benefit. So I know KCA will continue to beat the drum and really promote these hidden benefits and make sure it’s well communicated to the masses.
Irwin Aronson (30:14):
Well, you know, one of the realities is that the unions that KCA members have relationships with and KCA members have a truly symbiotic relationship that they’ll get into a wrestling match here and there over what these rates should be. But the rates ultimately are collectively bargained and nobody is getting forced to pay more than the than the economy locally can bear. And the unions and the employers work together jointly to assure that admission to crafts is based upon what they anticipate will be the actual industry needs. So there aren’t too many extra apprentices and too many extra journeymen that are competing for work. The work is there based on the estimates and they work in tandem. Just earlier today, I was working on a piece of legislation known as house bill 1100, that would provide some specialized tax benefits for building another petrochemical plant up in the North Eastern part of Pennsylvania. And I was working with a group of contractors as well as a group of union folks, standing shoulder to shoulder and working arm and arm to get the General Assembly of Pennsylvania to attend and pass the legislation that will enable this to happen. And it’s a ton of jobs in Pennsylvania, but it’s also a ton of tax income. And it’s also a ton of real and meaningful profits for contractors who successfully bid and get that work.
Jon O’Brien (31:53):
Well, thank you for your efforts there. I’m hearing leadership is slowly coming around.
Irwin Aronson (31:59):
Nope. Nobody ever explained it so well before.
Jon O’Brien (32:02):
Yes. On behalf of the industry. Thank you. Yes.
Irwin Aronson (32:06):
Thank you for giving me the opportunity. It really is a pleasure to work jointly that’s yeah, so many times in my world, it’s an antagonistic relationship, but in this piece of my world, it really never is antagonistic. It’s really a joint effort. And that’s why I emphasize these jointly trusteed training programs and jointly trusteed healthcare programs and jointly trusteed apprenticeship and training programs, because that’s the deal.
Jon O’Brien (32:34):
Absolutely. It’s teamwork. It’s all about teamwork and yeah on behalf of management in KCA, I’d like to just thank you for all your hard work over the years, and we’d like to keep picking your brain and bring you back on the show from time to time.
Well, I’m happy to come back. I have an intimate understanding of what’s in that brain and there isn’t much, but it’s all yours.
Chris Martin (32:56):
Okay. Irwin we thank you so much for your time today and thank you for everyone listening. Be prepard because we have a lot more coming from the Building PA Podcast, more episodes about interesting and useful information such as this. So thank you, Irwin and thank you Jon. Have a great day, everybody.
Jon O’Brien (33:23):
Alright. We’ll see ya.