For more than 70 years, Bell Products Inc. of Napa has helped homes and businesses stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Not surprisingly, training employees to build those sophisticated heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems is a big part of that success, said Paul Irwin, co-owner of Bell Products.

Fortunately, the training center used by Bell Products, and many other local employers, is just down the road in nearby Fairfield.

Called the Sheet Metal Apprenticeship Training Center, it’s managed and funded by the Sheet Metal Workers Local 104 and Bay Area Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).

Bell Products’ team includes apprentices enrolled in the program and journeypersons who have already graduated.

Born and raised in Napa, Ricky Del Zompo, 29, is a fifth-year apprentice in the program. He left Napa upon high school graduation on a baseball scholarship to attend San Francisco State University.

Del Zompo graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Studies but never found his calling in teaching, as he had intended.

After sharing his dilemma with his cousin, Jeff Alcayaga, a partner in Bell Products, Alcayaga suggested Del Zompo consider a career change and take the test for the Apprenticeship Training Program.

After spending six months as a pre-apprentice, he was called to join the five-year program. Now, Del Zompo will be part of the first graduating class from the new Fairfield Training Center in July 2018.

“Joining the union was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” said Del Zompo.

“After going to college and not having a job after graduation, I was open to options,” he said.

“Bell Products has been a great employer and I look forward to graduating and becoming a journeyman.”

Raymel McCowan of Vacaville, 30, is just starting his journey to apprenticeship as a member of the pre-apprentice program. He’s also employed by Bell Products.

McCowan has taken the placement test and is waiting to be called up to the program.

McCowan, who grew up in San Francisco, has worked in the industry most of his career, but for non-union contractors. He said he liked the industry but wanted better benefits, especially as a father to an 11-year-old daughter.

As an employed pre-apprentice, McCowan starts at $19 per hour, plus healthcare and vacation benefits.

Once he begins the five-year apprenticeship program, he will earn retirement savings and his starting wage will increase to $25 per hour; gradually his apprenticeship rate will increase up to over $50 as a starting journeyperson.

“Working as a pre-apprentice means I’m going to be a step ahead once I start my first year of apprenticeship training,” added McCowan. “I’ll be able to hit the ground running when I’m called up to the program.”

Irwin is also the co-chair of the Sheet Metal Workers (SMW) Local 104 Apprenticeship Training Trust which operates the training program.

He’s seen the industry growth and increasing demand for apprenticeships in the sheet metal industry over the past 35 years, especially in the Bay Area.

“Not all apprenticeships are created equal,” explained Irwin.

“Union apprenticeships are held to a much higher standard due to the layers of regulation necessary to ensure the highest quality of training and skills assessment,” he said.

For example, “members of SMW 104 are beholden to collective bargaining agreements, national industry standards, Federal Department of Labor regulations,” and more, “which regulate our training curriculum and ongoing skills assessments.”

Apprenticeships are fast-becoming a more acceptable and viable alternative to traditional college because of the high quality of skills training, paid on-the-job training and lack of student debt.

As of October 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that about 70 percent of high school students attend college, leaving 30 percent who leave high school with fewer marketable job skills.

They may not be able to afford to go to college and likely were not educated on what kind of trade industries were available to them, certainly not those that would offer a competitive wage.

The 70 percent who did attend at least some college aren’t necessarily satisfied with how their degree has served their job prospects and many are facing enormous student debt, said the report.

“We have many apprentices who have college degrees then found that they weren’t as passionate about the industry for which they acquired a degree,” said Irwin.

“Instead they enjoy working with their hands and the satisfaction that comes with a trade-skilled career.”

According to a 2014 report by the New York Federal Reserve Bank, 45 percent of recent college graduates ages 22 to 27 are underemployed with their college degree.

Funding for the Sheet Metal Apprenticeship Training Center is supported by the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 104, Bay Area SMACNA and other contractors that employ the apprentices while enrolled in the five-year program.

The Fairfield Training Center recently completed the final build-out phase of the Fairfield facility, its fourth across the Bay Area, after four years of updating various labs, technologies and classrooms online.

Currently, the Fairfield training facility has about 70 people on their waiting list to join the program.

Pre-apprenticeship offers an inside view to the industry but is not a pre-requisite to joining the program. Women and veterans are also encouraged to apply.

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