Amsterdam News Staff
Many people dream of changing careers and finding something with more purpose. When discussed publicly, that career change usually means something white-collar or business-related. No one thinks of transitioning to something that involves working with your hands, but a local partnership is helping people do just that.
A partnership between the Mechanical Contractors Association of New York and Steamfitters Local 638 has helped shape what officials call “a different type of scholar.” They’re using brains and brawn to help the rest of New York City live an efficient and sustainable future. The two entities have united to underwrite more than $100,000 per steamfitter apprentice to produce a future workforce in the industry foregoing the traditional college financing route, where students are charged to learn.
Steamfitters design, build and maintain fire sprinklers; gas, steam and water piping; and HVAC systems in industrial, commercial and residential buildings and facilities. All of these materials make up the hearts, lungs and arteries of buildings and facilities occupied by thousands of people daily. It’s an unsung job that’s important to help make the city go that most people never consider—unless you’re Michelle Cosby. The 38-year-old married mother of three always wanted to work with her hands despite being pushed into other professions by family. Her father was a steamfitter and she was obsessed with building things.
“I have this thing where I like to build things,” Cosby told the AmNews. “It’s always been in me. This is something I wanted to do.”
Cosby said that she wanted to get into steam fitting right out of high school, and growing up with a steamfitter father, she knew what the job entailed from day one. She knew of the physicality and it didn’t bother her one bit.
“I asked my dad, ‘Instead of me going to college, how about I get into steam fitting?’” Cosby said. “He said it wasn’t gonna happen and said, ‘You’re going to school, you’re gonna get an education and you’re gonna be a doctor.”
“I worked in the medical field for years and I went to school for practical nursing,” continued Cosby. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go to an office every day. It’s the same thing over and over again.”
Some apprentices have entered this profession through either the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills, which is a pre-apprenticeship program designed to attract New York City public high school graduates, or through Helmets to Hardhats, a training program to assimilate returning U.S. veterans into New York City building and construction trades.
As for Cosby, she took a leap of faith and quit her job in November 2013 to apply for a shot at an apprenticeship. “I took a leap of faith and I’m married and I have three kids, ages 17, 9 and 5 at the time,” she said. “I took all these tests to get into this program and I was so excited.”
Cosby underwent training that included physical work such as running sheet rock through New York City streets.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, pipefitter, steamfitter and plumber employment numbers are expected to increase 21 percent in the next 10 years, which is faster than the average for all other occupations.
Cosby was ready to get one of those gigs after training when she heard a local union was taking applications.
“I thought, if I get this interview, I’m going in with my suit on, resume, certification and I’m gonna blow them away,” Cosby said. “And if that doesn’t work, I don’t see myself doing anything else. I got in. I got an interview I got invited back a couple times and the rest is history.”
Cosby said that her daughter, who was diagnosed with leukemia at the same time, was told that the cancer cells in her body were gone. The next day, she got a call to start working.
“It must be fate,” she said.
Local 638’s most recent graduating class in June is representative of the city itself. In terms of demographics, the class was 30 percent African-American, 20 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. With steam fitting a typically male-dominated industry, having several minority female apprentices was notable.
While Cosby wanted to take the road to a career that she loved, Ahmed Blackwell wanted to leave his gig at John F. Kennedy Airport for a better paying career so he could provide for his family.
“Truthfully, it was a decision made between myself and my wife,” Blackwell told the AmNews. “At the time, the TSA was taking a lot of my personal time, and I wasn’t seeing much of my family. Also, TSA wasn’t as fulfilling to me.”
Blackwell said that he wanted to do something that helped society and built character. He wanted to feel great about doing something to supply things for his family. “When I saw the opportunity to join 638, I jumped on it.”
Blackwell said he heard about the apprenticeship through his stepfather, a superintendent for the housing authority, and just “followed through” on his inquiry. “I did what I needed to do to get my name in the runnings.” While getting his name out there, he researched the nature of the work he was changing careers for.
“I was somewhat familiar with it,” Blackwell said to the AmNews. “I’ve always been a person who was good with his hands and dealing with things around the house. When I got a better understanding of what they did, I got excited about it.”
Blackwell was also studying at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice while working at the airport and has put his studies on pause to embark on his new career.
“I always enjoyed learning new things and being exposed to things I didn’t know about,” said Blackwell. “Every day there’s something new, something compelling to share with my family. We build on things together, which is wonderful because you’re constantly learning.”
Blackwell has had a hand in the construction of a psychiatric mental facility in the Bronx and with the elementary school P.S. 343 in Manhattan.
Recent graduates of the apprenticeship have also worked on adding sprinklers to the New York City MTA subway system, renovations to Madison Square Garden and the Empire State Building and construction of the new World Trade Center site, among many more.
Blackwell made a reference to how a child feels after coloring a book or building something with Legos and showing off what he did.
“As an adult, I can say, ‘Look what I did,’” said Blackwell. “I’m happy that I can come home and talk to my son about these things and continue my education in different ways. When it’s time for them to carry on their education, I’m able to say look at what I’ve done.” Now, Blackwell no longer has to adjust his schedule around the hours he worked at JFK. He has more time to spend with his wife and his kids. He can plan his leisure time now. Blackwell attributes his newfound happiness to being part of Local 638.
“Being part of a union, it can be very inspirational for others,” said Blackwell. “It definitely breeds hard work, determination, and you have to be disciplined.”