Ben Galinato won first place in the cement masons competition.

"Who am I? Why am I here?" The words uttered by Ross Perot's running mate Admiral James Stockdale, in his opening statements of the 1992 Vice Presidential debate. These words seem appropriate to use for my first column. Allow me to introduce myself.

I am a second-generation plasterer who has been working in the industry for more than 30 years. My career began by serving a formal apprenticeship, working as journeyman and foreman on both residential and commercial projects, and I even tried my hand for several years as a small contractor specializing in home remodeling and historic restoration. But for the majority of my career, I have been a union representative and an apprenticeship instructor in Southern California.

Five years ago, I was offered the opportunity to relocate to Washington and oversee our industry's contract to manage a national "pre-apprenticeship" program called Job Corps; a partnership comprised of 56 regional training programs sponsored by labor, management and the federal government that provide vocational training and employment opportunities to America's disadvantaged youth.

Second place winner Devin Newbauer.

Our industry challenges

The lath, plaster and drywall industry is facing a number of challenges, the most important of these is how we recruit, train and retain new workers into our industry. I hope in the coming months to be able to share with you what I have learned about training over these past 30 years, and to introduce related news and information that I hope you will find both interesting and useful. My background is predominately from a unionized environment, therefore I will try to offer a perspective about how and why the union does certain things, and I will try to do so without preaching.

Regardless of your union affiliation, or lack thereof, we all share a common goal: Ensuring that the walls and ceilings industry remains a good, healthy and prosperous place to make a living for ourselves and those who will come after us, through the tried and true values of hard work, fair competition and craftsmanship.

One of the ways that registered apprenticeship training programs ensure that standards are taught uniformly around the nation is through regional and sometimes international skill contests between advanced apprentices. Such competitions not only gauge the metal of the apprentice but they showcase how effective the apprentice has been taught by their instructors.

I recently attended a contest of cement mason apprentices in mid-January that was held in conjunction with one of the largest construction trade show in the world, the World of Concrete Trade Show, in Las Vegas. Forty-two young men, representing the best from their part of the United States and Canada, traveled to this infamous desert paradise to match their training, stamina and skills head-to-head against their counterparts for not much more than bragging rights.

Let the games begin

The two-day contest began with a review of a set of blue prints, the assignment of a randomly selected 4-foot-by-8-foot work platform, and enough lumber and plywood to form up their concrete project. The contestants worked quickly and deliberately to layout the forms that would be used to create a set of concrete steps, bevel and edge the concrete to a drain strip, and develop some decorative flatwork. The project had to be laid out according to the plot-plan; the steps had to be angled forward to match the print details; and a radius band had to be established, cut and inlayed into the form to create a clean unbroken line around the flatwork edge.

Day two of the contest was greeted by the familiar sound of the ready-mix truck backing up to the tent door to offer its load of concrete to a waiting army of fork lift drivers, each cradling a black plastic mud box which was whisked away to the awaiting apprentices in a precision display that would rival a ballet.

The cement mason apprentices were now in their element, the air of quiet confidence and determination permeates the tent. The forms are being filled by shovel and the mud is tamped as it is being placed to avoid pockets of unwanted air or aggregate. Magnesium floats and stainless steel trowels are pulled from tool buckets and as soon as the concrete is placed, the detailed process of finishing it begins.

This is when the apprentices' training was really on display. In a matter of just a couple of hours, they not only placed, leveled and trowelled the concrete but they also inlayed tread grooves on each step, fit and placed mortar stencils and broadcast color-hardener to create a colored imitation brick effect, and beveled and edged around a continuous drain strip. The entire work site was an array of concrete effects, each with its own demanding parade of procedures that must be followed if the prize was to be theirs.

In the background were a small contingent of journeymen and apprentice plasterers. Being members of the same union as the cement masons, they were performing an example of "free-form" plaster. One can view this dynamic and artistic process used extensively on the Las Vegas Strip. Hundreds of onlookers gawked and asked questions, most in amazement that one can actually create trees, cactus, rocks and just about anything else imagined from cement plaster. But it was not the plasterers' day to compete; as the sister trade to the cement mason, they were there to showcase one of the many skills of their common union, the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association. The plasterers will get their chance to go head-to-head in their own international contest on April 28 and 29, in Long Beach, Calif., at the AWCI/CISCA Intex Convention and Trade Show. For information and directions to the Long Beach Convention Center, visit

If you have an interest in the training of plasterers, I hope that you will join us in Long Beach and see first-hand the skills, talent and determination of our young apprentices. If you've never attended such an event, I promise it will give you a renewed sense of hope and confidence in the future of our industry.

As for who won the cement mason contest? Well, I wouldn't close without a proper acknowledgment of these fine young men:

  • First place: Ben Galinato, Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Second place: Devin Newbauer, Frankfort, Ind.
  • Third place: Todd Ryan, Eastpointe, Mich.

If you read this article, please circle number 358.