Despite economic slump, some JATC grads in Chicago are prospering in drywall, painting

Instructor Michael Krawiec explains the safe use of scaffolding in the User Erector and Dismantler Course.

On a good day, the jobsite where Matthew Vasquez has been working for the last one and a half years gives him an extraordinary aerial view of Chicago’s famous lakefront.

Even on a bad day, the view is still pretty good at the 80-story luxury condominium twin towers at 600 Lakefront Drive in downtown Chicago.


But the best thing about every work day for the next six months is that Vasquez, 27, is making excellent money working with people he likes in a craft he loves, handed down three generations in his family from his beloved grandfather, Phillipe, who brought his plastering skills to Chicago from Italy.

Vasquez is a drywall taper for one of the largest drywall firms in Chicago, Tempus Construction Co. He learned the fine points of his trade in the two-year program at the Joint Apprentice Training Committee (JATC) in Chicago, and attributes his success first to his family heritage, and secondly to long-time JATC instructor Eddie Bogden, who has achieved nearly legendary status and whom Vasquez credits with giving him excellent instruction as well as motivation to succeed.

Vasquez grew up in the construction business. His father had a paint shop for 20 years, and it was there that he learned the basics of taping when he was 14 years old.

But Vasquez never thought he’d become a taper before he entered the JATC program, where he found he enjoyed the artistic aspects of it when he was exposed to it in the classroom. “The more I did it the more I liked it,” Vasquez told Walls & Ceilings, noting that he generally enjoys taping more than painting. “Taping is more of an art and you have to have an eye for it. It takes a lot of finesse. I got to be known for my hand-work, and got to be pretty good at it.”

Vasquez eventually excelled in the use of automatic taping tools, which led him to being named Apprentice of the Year in 2007.

Vasquez hasn’t missed a day of work since he began with Tempus two and a half years ago. One of the most satisfying aspects of his current gig, is that he’s working with a decidedly friendly crew, and it helps that he’s been working side-by-side with a younger cousin, Joe.

After that, he’s confident he’s going to have work, especially since he’s certified as a journeyman as both a painter and drywaller.

Faux painting is the highlight of JATC graduate Christine Gelden’s career. Shown is a project she completed recently in Chicago.


Meanwhile, about 70 miles away from downtown Chicago another graduate of the JATC program, Christine Gelden, is enjoying a very different, but nevertheless prosperous, career as a painter specializing in faux painting. She attributes her success completely to the JATC program and its instructors.

Gelden first enrolled in the JATC program 10 years ago when her children were small, got her journeyman’s card seven years ago, and says she can’t imagine a more delightful occupation, one she can pursue all the more since her children are grown. “Don’t tell anyone, but faux painting is my passion, and I think I’d be doing it for free if I had other means to pay my bills,” she laughed.

Gelden is one of a small group of faux painters at Beatty Decorating in Lake Bluff, Ill., a north shore suburb of Chicago. While most of her work is “regular painting,” the faux jobs that come her way feed her creative passion, and she enjoys the challenges of the unique nature of the specific situations.

“The most important thing about JATC is the upgrade classes they are continually offering,” Gelden said. “Things are constantly changing and journeymen who take the upgrades can be up to speed with the new technology. Our faux instructor, Mike Krawiec, is always raising the bar and bringing the rest of us up to that higher level so we don’t become stagnant.” Krawiec, one of five instructors in the JATC painting program, initiated the faux segment to the curriculum nine years ago.

Gelden recalls the “early days” of faux painting, when the materials were oil-based, smelly and hard to clean. “The difference between then and now is like the difference between black and white and color. If someone isn’t keeping up, they’re just going to fall way behind.”

About 100 people enroll every year in the Chicago JATC program, according to Krawiec. For many years the program was affiliated with the local school board, but became independent and moved to its current free-standing facility in nearby Berkeley in the 1980s when local industry leaders wanted more control over the curriculum.

Every year there are about 80 graduates–typically men aged 20-25 years old–and they tend to continue to work for the companies that sponsored them in the program.

The Chicago program has two sections, one for painters and one for drywall finishers, titled the Drywall Finishing Training Committee. “While the apprentices are in school, the contractor covers their benefits, plus the apprentices receive a stipend of $14.50 a day to help offset their expenses,” Krawiec said.

The Chicago-area program is funded by a collective bargaining agreement between the Painters District Council #14 and its signatory contractors. Fifty two cents an hour of each union member’s wage is contributed to the JATC Training fund. There are more than 150 JATC programs in the United States and Canada. Each is run by the local district councils of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT).

An apprentice touches up stenciling work on a hands-on project during class at Painter’s District Council # 14 in Chicago.


Jeff Hester, second-generation president of a large painting company that bears his family name, Hester Decorating Co., is one of the companies associated with the LMCI, and said he can’t think of a better investment for his company.

Like his father, his brother and two of his sons, Hester is a 1981 JATC graduate and attributes the company’s success to its graduates. The company deals mainly with high-end residential painting, with about 20 percent high-end commercial. “We’re having one of our busiest years ever. So far we have close to 80 men working and we’re booked pretty far into the year,” he explained.

Hester said he’s seen the JATC program evolve over the years to keep pace with continually changing technology. “They have a huge curriculum and the students learn a lot. It’s an excellent vehicle to show all aspects of our trade,” Hester said. “If you love faux finishing, that’s what you’ll do. Or spraying; if they ask about it, we’ll direct the apprentices into that line of work.”

Hester noted that continual upgrading is a big plus for his workers, and encourages all of his journeymen to attend the classes, which are offered every weekend and usually three or four nights a week, in many aspects of the industry, including such topics as wallpapering or lead abatement.

“We can always learn more. Things change so often from government regulations these days and new technology. You can’t just buy a brush and roller and call yourself a painter anymore. The main thing we stress,” Hester said, “is that it’s not just people painting. It’s a career with a great pension plan and benefits. What other educational program can someone finish in two years then start making $65,000 or $70,000 a year?”


For John Sheehan, superintendent at Cassidy Brothers, a plastering firm founded in 1949 and today specializing in high-end commercial and residential drywall, there’s a very bright future for journeymen who stick with business.

“If they don’t like what college has to offer, the JATC gives them a skill to work with their hands. A lot of them stick with it.”

Sheehan’s specialty is carpentry, and he is involved with the Brotherhood of Carpenters, and is taking high-level training in Las Vegas for superintendents. “I came up through the program myself,” Sheehan explained. “I went to the Chicago area carpenter’s program a year after high school when I decided I wanted to be a carpenter. I tell all these guys coming up through an apprenticeship program that if they work through the system, they can become a foreman then a superintendent. If you work up the ladder, it’s a bright future.”

JATC instructor Michael Krawiec spends about 90 percent of his time teaching painting in the Chicago program and the rest of his efforts are spent, as put it, “training the trainers” through programs offered by the Finishing Trades Institute and Finishing Contractors Association.

He teaches instructors how to teach decorative painting in apprenticeship programs, and in June is slated to teach decorative painting to several programs in the IUPAT at its main national training center located in Hanover, Md.

Krawiec is a Chicago native and fondly recalls how he was initiated into his craft. “I learned from the old Hungarians who did the churches in Europe,” he explained, and recalls the meticulous attention to detail and profound pride in their work that the Europeans brought to America.

After he went through the JATC program in 1985, he worked for Ascher Brothers in Chicago as a painter, where he strived to bring the same European proficiency to the craft. “I handled a lot of restoration projects that are very well known here in Chicago. I did LaSalle National Bank, and at the Northwestern University Medical Library, I did a ceiling restoration of the lobby and entranceway. After the plastering was done, I did all of the decorative painting. It looks like an oriental rug on the ceiling. We used stencils, did hand-painting, lining, highlights, marbleizing. It’s an amazing project.”

After he left the field as a painter, Krawiec became a JATC instructor and has earned several college degrees, one in applied sciences from Marshall University in Huntington W. Va. He also attended the National Labor College affiliated with the University of Baltimore in Maryland and will graduate in June with a degree in labor education.


Despite the current slump in the economy, Krawiec sees a strong future for specialty painters and skilled tradesmen in general.

“The good thing about the specialty end is it’s a high-dollar market,” he said. “Painting companies will have a couple of people who do that work for them, and these painters are generally paid more than the rest of the workers. They are considered the go-to person for a major project and usually are in charge from beginning to end; from getting estimates to getting the manpower on the job. In the decorative market there has been a decline in wallpaper but a rise in decorative finishing, so the International has decided to do more training. We are constantly asked to recruit women, and they often excel in the decorative end.”

But, he notes, while decorative finishing is exceedingly gratifying, nobody should underestimate why it pays so well: It’s hard work. “Our customers don’t see all the grit and grime involved in restoration. Nobody saw us covered in dirt. They just don’t see all the prep work that goes into it.”

Then, he notes with great satisfaction: “They just see the finished product.” And that makes it all worthwhile.

SIDEBAR: DFTC Chicago Area Drywall Finishers Curriculum

Students enrolled in the program take one 8-hour day of classes for 59 weeks, for a total of 472 hours of classroom instruction. They also work with a local contractor the other four days of the week.

1. Orientation/Rules and Regulations, Safety Overview, 60 hours (Theory, 20 hours, Practical Application, 40 hours) This segment covers School Rules, Pension and Welfare Benefits, Ladders, Scaffolding, Stilts, First Aid, CPR and OSHA 10.
2. Materials of the Drywall Trade, 4 hours Theory
3. Tools of the Trade, 4 hours Theory
4. Filling Compounds, 4 hours Theory
5. Pre-Job Inspection and Preparation, 4 hours Theory
6. Hand Embedding Dry Taping Method, 44 hours (Theory, 8 hours, Practical Application, 36 hours)
This segment covers the Taping Sequence, 2nd Coating, Finish Coating, Beads and Fasteners and New Materials.
7. Automatic Taping Tools, 72 hours (Theory, 10 hours, Practical Application, 62 hours)
8. Wiping Angle Tapes, 8 hours
9. Finishing Boxes and Angles, 32 hours
10. Brush & Roll, 32 hours
11. Prep, 32 hours
12. Repairs and Correction, 24 hours
13. Basic Math, 8 hours
14. Job Economics, 24 hours
15. Sprayed Fire Sealants, 32 hours
16. Texturing, 48 hours
17. Final Test, 8 hours
18. Apprentice Evaluation for 80 percent, 32 hours Ames Tools Certification
19. Ames Tools Certification