With increasing demand for special effect theming, historic restoration and old world charm, an interest in good old-fashioned quality, plastering and the skills of the construction industry's "oldest profession" are making a big comeback.

A good plasterer must be familiar with a wide variety of tools, materials and application techniques. Portland cement works differently than gypsum, three-coat plaster works differently than veneer systems, all of which in turn work very different from the newer acrylic materials ? not to mention the sculpting skills required for "free form" plastering of trees and rocks, or applying coloring and texture patterns associated with European finishes like venetian and marmorino. Did I mention that there is a difference in applying cementitious vs. mineral fiber fireproofing?

A craft not a specialty

The demand for plasterers who are well trained in a variety of skills raises the question: Where are we going to get them? The answer is almost as old as the trade itself: apprenticeship!

In Europe, long before the formation of the North American Colonies, skilled craftsmanship was passed down one generation to the next through a formalized system called apprenticeship. Often, a father would enter into an agreement with a master craftsman to train his son in the arts of the trade. In exchange, the apprentice would be "indentured" to the master until the term of the contract expired.

The apprentice would begin his time by working at the most mundane of tasks and gradually building his skills over a period of several years. After the successful completion of the term of the contract, the apprentice became known as a "journeyman." It was then and only then that he was freed from his service and able to move on to other shops (hence the name "journey"-man), and perhaps even open his own shop and train his own apprentices.

Apprenticeship evolved as it was introduced to the New World, and even more so as we began to enter into the Industrial Revolution. No longer are apprentices treated like slaves, and no longer is it only an opportunity for males or the sons of craftsmen. Today, a formal apprenticeship program establishes opportunity, fairness and dignity to the apprentice and is tailored to meet the needs of the industry.

The components of modern apprenticeship include industry standards, related instruction classes and on-the-job training. The players in the apprenticeship game and who form the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee that oversees the management of the activity are often representatives of organized labor, management associations, and offering some oversight and advice is the state or federal government.

A new apprentice enters into an agreement to abide by all the rules of the program, attend related instruction classes, get passing grades and work hard for any participating employer to whom he may be assigned. The JATC provides management of the apprenticeship system, updated course curriculum, progress evaluation and assistance in retaining continued employment at fair and progressively increasing schedule of wages.

The best years of our lives

The plastering industry grew rapidly after the end of WWII, with many GIs returning home to the largest residential construction boom in history. Every house was plastered inside and throughout the sun-belt, almost every house was stucco outside. The demand for plasterers was at an all-time high and local apprenticeship programs turned out journeyman plasterers faster than Firestone turned out tires. Unfortunately, those days were not to last. Due in part to its lower cost, and ease of transporting and storage, the popularity of drywall began to grow in the early 1960s and the demand for plasterers decreased. As the demand for plastering declined, the need for new plasterers declined with it, and the industry apprenticeship programs slowed the training of plasterers to a trickle by the mid-'70s.

Some still talk critically of the days when the plasterers could have embraced drywall and made it a part of their repertoire of skills. But the fact is that this proud and hard-working group (joined shoulder to shoulder with many contractors of the day) honestly believed that drywall was an inferior product created to steal away marketshare and in the end, would discredit their trade, their industry and themselves.

Now armed with the gift of 20-20 hindsight, today's thinking plasterer recognizes past mistakes and embraces new technology and application techniques to better represent the wall and ceiling industry, to better market their labor and attempt to control the quality of the work performed.

With the increasing demand for plasterers beginning in the mid-'80s, the local unions of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association, together with various management partners, have awoken dormant training programs across the United States and Canada. Where these programs exist, they are not only meeting the requirements of training new apprentices for the industry but also offering area workers safety training, first aid and CPR classes, as well as journeyman upgrading courses.

The apprenticeship classes are in the following areas: history of plastering, Portland cement/stucco, gypsum systems (including veneers), ornamental and shop work, fireproofing, EIFS, knowledge of various lathing and substrates, specialty finishes, safety, applied mathematics, blueprint reading, tool and equipment use, and maintenance.

Training is only part of the challenge facing the plastering industry; the other half of the story is the recruitment of new apprentices. With so many choices offered to entry workers today, to attract quality people, the industry must maintain a quality driven work ethic. Anyone who has ever tried plastering knows that it is very hard work. Quality workers are looking for an industry that supports good wages, has fringe benefits to help pay expenses when they are ill and will assist them financially in their retirement years, and that has some reasonable expectation of continuity of employment. Among the reasons that some areas are experiencing difficulty finding qualified journeyman plasterers is because they have not recognized the need to prepare the soil of recruitment and training.

It is very difficult for an individual employer to a) provide meaningful supplemental training outside of the regular eight-hour day, and b) make long-term commitments for employment to entry-level workers. Addressing these concerns are what modern apprenticeship is all about. Employers and workers pool their resources to provide training to the regional industry, that way everyone shares in the cost to maintain skills and everyone reaps the reward. Apprentices are available to work for multiple employers with continuity of wages and benefits, thereby maintaining reasonably stable long-term employment for themselves.

Another resource for employers to find entry-level workers who have already prepared themselves for a career as apprentices in the plastering industry is through the national Plasterers and Cement Masons Job Corps Training Program. Job Corps is a partnership between the OPCMIA, AWCI and the U.S. Department of Labor, and administered by the National Plastering Industry's Joint Apprenticeship Trust Fund that provides "pre-apprenticeship" training to America's disadvantaged youth ages 16 to 24.

Trainees are taught the basics of the trade including safety rules, tools and materials; most graduates know how to use a hawk and trowel (correctly) and are ready for meaningful applications when they enter the workforce. Job Corps is also a resource for industry members who are looking for a way to help a young person get their life on track and focus on a career in the construction industry. While attending vocational classes in plastering or cement masonry, most Job Corps trainees are also working on obtaining their GED or completing their High School Diploma and getting a driver's license. Training facilities are located all across the United States, and graduate trainees are offered assistance with relocating anywhere in the U.S. that work is offered.

Job Corps operates a program called "Direct Referral." If you know a young man or woman who could benefit from six to 12 months of focus in his or her life, Job Corps may be able to house, feed and provide academic and vocational training to someone you know who may need a little direction in beginning a career in our industry. There is no cost to the employer or the trainee.

Upcoming Plaster Contests

August 9 & 10, 2002

Indiana State Plasterers Apprenticeship Contest

Indiana State Fair, Indianapolis.

August 15 & 16, 2002

Ohio State Plasterers Apprenticeship Contest

Ohio State Fair, Columbus, Ohio