TAMPA — Terry Shipley was studying business administration at Polk State College when he noticed that acquaintances who had studied the same thing weren't necessarily working in the field.
Instead, they had jobs in skilled trades like pipe fitting and electrical work.
Shipley, 24, did some research and decided to switch to a five-year apprenticeship program offered in Tampa through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 915.
Now in his first year, Shipley is working toward becoming a journeyman wireman capable of making up to $26 an hour in industrial settings. He plans to go back to college once he's done, and the skill should make him "more of an asset." It could even lead to his becoming a contractor.
"Right now," he said, "I have a more solid path."
This is the kind of story Tampa Bay area labor unions increasingly want to tell. So they are working to grow programs for apprentices who get on-the-job training, mentoring and classroom instruction while working for a sponsoring employer.
To do it, they are asking Tampa City Hall to try an idea being tested in St. Petersburg.
In 2013, the St. Petersburg City Council passed a local hiring ordinance that, among other things, allows contractors on city projects to get paid more of their money sooner if a certain percentage of their workers are in state-registered apprenticeship programs.
Now unions are talking to Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who says he's "open to taking a look at it." Labor leaders hope to meet with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik to pitch him on the idea for his redevelopment near Amalie Arena.
Separately, the City Council last week voted to explore the idea of encouraging apprenticeship programs for contractors doing city community redevelopment projects of more than $150,000.
Union bosses say they have a broad, two-part goal: to have a local labor force that is ready to go to work, and to have jobs for those workers to do.
"It takes two pieces," said Jack Jarrell, business manager of Iron Workers Local 397 and president of the Florida Gulf Coast Building & Construction Trades Council. "We have to have jobs for these apprentices to go to work on. If not, we can't retain them to teach them what they need to learn."
Labor leaders expect several factors to drive a growing need for more skilled workers.
Nationally, the workforce is aging. Waves of retirements are expected to create shortages in skilled trades.
Locally, Tampa has two $1 billion construction projects on the horizon — Vinik's makeover of the southern part of downtown and Tampa International Airport's expansion.
The policy being pitched to Buckhorn is aimed at helping to meet the need locally so contractors don't have to bring in workers from outside Florida.
Between the $1 billion projects and a wider pickup in construction, "our biggest problem will be finding a readily available and trained workforce," Buckhorn said. About a year ago he arranged a meeting between union leaders and the Beck Group, one of the contractors for the airport's expansion and renovation.
Statewide, 45 percent of registered apprenticeship programs are union-based, according to the Florida Department of Education. The rest are non-union.
"Many of the apprentices will go to work for non-union shops, but using those kids I think makes a lot of sense," Buckhorn said. "I don't want to lose them to Charlotte (N.C.) any more than I want to lose someone coming out" of the University of South Florida.
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The kind of program Shipley is in is supported by unions or other such organizations, local contractors, the Hillsborough County School District and the state of Florida.
In Hillsborough, apprenticeship programs currently enroll 487 adult students in trades ranging from carpentry to masonry to structural steel. The school district also has agreements with groups in Alachua, Duval, Escambia and Seminole counties to operate similar apprenticeship programs.
The school district provides some of the money for instructors and is reimbursed by the state as apprentices complete the programs, which often take four years to complete, said Warren Brooks, the district's general director for career, technical and adult education. Currently, Hillsborough's program totals about $2 million a year.
"It's a neat alternative to a four-year college," Brooks said, especially for workers with young families like Shipley, who has a 2-month-old son. Apprentices are paid and earn benefits while in the programs, which are free, and they finish without student loans.
Along with technical training courses for high school students, the apprenticeship programs have had a vocal supporter in outgoing Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
"Our students have to be college- and career-ready," said Elia, who recently met with Buckhorn to discuss apprenticeship programs.
Still, not everyone agrees that the St. Petersburg experiment is worth duplicating in Tampa.
Training is important, but federal regulations already control the ratio of apprentices to journeymen on construction jobs, said Steve Cona III, president of the Florida Gulf Coast chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors.
"We would be against any local hiring ordinances that the city would come up with," he said. "We believe that it's not the place of local government to tell companies who to hire."
Better, Cona said, might be to offer contractors tax credits for training apprentices. ABC itself runs apprenticeship programs for 250 students at Hillsborough Community College and another 100 in Sarasota.
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St. Petersburg's local hiring program focuses on contractors doing city projects that cost more than $500,000.
If those companies meet the city's hiring goals, they stand to be paid a larger percentage of the money that the city typically retains until the project is 25, 50 and 99 percent complete.
To get the money, contractors have to make sure that 30 percent of the labor on city projects are new hires from Pinellas County. Of those, one-third need to be apprentices. Also targeted are the unemployed, under-employed, low-income applicants and workers with criminal records.
Since St. Petersburg launched its program, a dozen contractors have won city contracts totaling more than $20.8 million, according to a report to the City Council last November.
Of those, only one, Hubbard Construction, the city's street resurfacing contractor, has certified that it hired unemployed, disadvantaged or apprentice workers.
If Tampa agrees to create similar incentives, labor might approach the Hillsborough County Commission.
"It's going to require a lot of effort, because it's a little different political ideology on the commission than in the city," said Cheryl Schroeder, executive director of the West Central Florida Federation of Labor. "If we can be successful in the city, then we can point to that and say, 'Now you need to take this up.' "
Times photographer Monica Herndon contributed to this report. Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.