Cement Mason Apprentices Bring Trade to New Era

ARCADIA, Calif.–The slow but steady return of construction in Los Angeles and Orange Counties is stirring demand for two essential elements found at nearly every building site: Concrete and the skilled Cement Masons who know how to work with it.

Meeting the continuing need for well-trained masons is the focus of the Southern California Cement Masons Apprenticeship Program, one of the oldest and most respected union training efforts nationwide. It includes seven training centers serving 300 active students throughout southern California. While much of what is taught has been used for generations, the instruction also reflects the latest advances and changes in the way concrete is handled. Apprentices are reminded that they are in a unique trade that is highly demanding.

“I am a graduate of this program from 30 years ago,” said Jaime Barton, Business Manager for Cement Masons Local 500. “This is one of the best training programs you are going to find anywhere. We are seeing a lot of changes in the way we work with concrete. The whole program is designed to teach how to do it right and how to do it safe using the latest techniques.”

Scott Brain, Business Manager for Cement Masons Local 600, said the commitment to adjusting the course material is a major benefit of the program. “This has been a very successful program because it changes as the construction industry changes. It is always evolving. That’s why we are able to supply contractors with quality craftsmen.”

Concrete Is Temperamental

“Concrete is a very temperamental material,” said Armando Pena, a third-generation Cement Mason who serves as apprentice coordinator for two unions, Locals 500 and 600, and is on site for this visit to the Arcadia training center. “There is a lot to learn about concrete and it involves a unique skill. We tell the students, you don’t get a second chance with concrete, you have to do it right the first time. You might have to work through lunch because that is the window of opportunity. That is why we have this program.”

The four-year program charges no tuition and focuses on apprentice Cement Masons who are working full-time in the field for a participating contractor. Those selected agree to attend eight-hour classes held two Saturdays a month. Before completing the program and achieving journeyman status, participants must devote 650 hours to classroom training and 4,800 on-the-job-training hours. Those who satisfy the requirement receive certifications from the State of California and the U.S. Department of Labor.

In addition, the training center also hosts pre-apprentices who gain exposure to the Trade and may decide to become apprentices.

Changing with the Industry

The program is broken down into 13 sections, each addressing specific elements of masonry work and its hazards. After safety training, students learn proper equipment use, how to read construction plans and how to build a scaffold that conforms to code standards. Also covered is concrete repair, finishing techniques, form fitting and decorative concrete.

“About 80 percent of what they learn, they learn on the job,” Pena said. He added that the focus on sustainability and efforts to reduce construction costs have had a significant impact on masonry work. For example, many large retailers are using polished-concrete floors, which are highly durable.

“It is very rewarding when you are working with a student and you see the light bulb come on,” said Doug Palmer, instructor at the Arcadia school who has been a union member since 1976. “You are here with some good people who come here on their own time to try and better themselves. I enjoy being around that.”