By Mike Mendenhall, published on jaxdailyrecord.com.
On a job site in Daytona Beach, 36-year-old plumber’s apprentice Caleb Sedelmeyer has known his journeyman for years, not just in the field but in the classroom as his instructor.
When Sedelmeyer was 32, he said he took “a leap.” The Jacksonville native applied for the Northeast Florida Builders Association Apprenticeship Program.
“It’s the first thing I ever truly saw through in my life. It’s amazing to be a part of. They go out of their way to be placed in the right program and are always available,” Sedelmeyer said.
Now entering his fourth and final year of the NEFBA program and working for Campbell Plumbing Contractors, Sedelmeyer said returning to school to learn a trade is “the best thing I ever did.”
“I was a little intimidated about the idea of going back to school,” he said. “But two nights per week, 6-9 p.m., everybody can make a little sacrifice like that for something bigger and better.”
NEFBA honored 12 high school seniors from around the region April 17 in the association’s first signing day ceremony for its apprenticeship program as part of the annual NEFBA Trade Show and Expo.
Nearly 60 parents, current and graduate apprentices filled the room at the University of North Florida Adam W. Herbert University Center to see students sign commitment papers to the four-year NEFBA Apprenticeship program.
The inaugural public signing ceremony is meant to give NEFBA’s post-secondary apprenticeship school a platform and draw more attention to its comprehensive curriculum at a time when industry officials say there are not enough skilled workers to meet housing and construction market demands.
NEFBA Apprenticeship Director and instructor Christina Thomas said last year’s signing ceremony was more of a private event, held in the NEFBA offices.
Response from students, she said, was so strong she and other NEFBA officials thought a more public venue could boost the training initiative’s visibility.
Bill Garrison is the executive officer for NEFBA and has been a witness to the nonunion program since 1992.
He said since its inception in 1972 the NEFBA Apprenticeship Program has been creating a pipeline of qualified workers in the construction industry.
Classes, taught at donated space at Keiser University, are led by certified practicing journeymen — many who graduated from the program.
Students get hands-on experience and are required to work a 40-hour per week job in their respective fields in addition to classes.
Currently, NEFBA provides training in four trades — HVAC, electrical, plumbing and carpentry.
“The first few years you’re doing the hard work, pulling the wires. But in four years when you graduate, you’re a journeyman. You’re leading your own team,” Thomas said.
The program is expanding. Beginning in the fall semester, NEFBA will be adding sheet metal to its training opportunities.
Garrison said a graduate of the plumbing program, who now bores underground trenches for piping, has asked NEFBA to add his specialty to their offerings, and the association also was approached by a representative in the fire sprinkler trade.
“We want to, but it’s all about resources,” Garrison said. “You have to have the capital to have more lab space and add instruction.”
Program organizers say growth is the goal. NEFBA said last year’s senior class graduated 38 apprentices. Next year that number will likely rise to 54-55.
“We’re looking forward to the year we have 100 graduates,” Garrison said. NEFBA officials are planning for a capacity of 400 students across four grade levels.
“We’re now at the second generation, so you’ll have someone who graduated in the 1970s or ‘80s and now their children are in the program,” Garrison said.
NEFBA is beginning to coordinate with Duval County Public Schools to market the program and introduce more skilled trades opportunities into local public schools.
Both Thomas and program training manager Charlie Libretto were teachers in Clay County District Schools. They said they have been asked by district officials to explain to students their options for other than a four-year liberal arts degree.
Networking in the schools fights a stigma against skilled labor, Thomas said. and helps fill the void in many fields related to homebuilding.
Garrison said NEFBA and other skilled trades organizations are seeing a shortage of workers in Northeast Florida and nationwide.
NEFBA is attempting to expand the program at a time when Northeast Florida is seeing an uptick in home sales. The March total of 2,495 sales was the largest since October, according to the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors.
Although 6.6% lower than in March 2018, the number, coupled with a home inventory supply of 3.6 months, creates a seller’s market.
Garrison said that shows how essential it is to recruit more people into building trades.
Before making a decision. students should do their research, Thomas said.
More non-Florida based trade training programs are making their way into the state. While some may have national certification, she said many cannot provide the same state certificate as the NEFBA program. Thomas compared it to the differences between not-for-profit and for-profit universities.
“Apprenticeship is the buzzword right now,” she said. “You’re seeing a lot of national attraction. Some people are coming into the state calling themselves apprenticeship programs but are not following the ‘no tuition’ laws and they are not registered (with the state).”