While the rest of the country is dealing with a struggling economy and high unemployment, Central Texas sheet metal workers are experiencing a boom.
But it is not an easy way to make a living. Sheet metal workers are logging hundreds of thousands of commuter miles to make ends meet, and Fort Hood is a hub. Not only is construction at Fort Hood allowing sheet metal workers to prosper, it also is opening the door for a new generation.
There are not too many local firms that offer the welding, service tech and drafting services. Companies that hire union workers seem to have a foothold on the current Fort Hood contracts.
At a time when health care and good jobs are hard to come by, a union job can look a lot more attractive. Many young men are using projects at Fort Hood to go from apprentice to journeyman, which could allow them to make upward of $80,000 a year. But in order to get there, they have make sacrifices.
Max McDonald was willing to live out of a tent in order to pay his dues.
McDonald was a prep cook at a Sonic in Kempner before deciding to become a sheet metal worker and join the union. He knew the road would be long before he could be a journeyman, but he was determined. The 25-year-old has two sons and a daughter on the way, and he wanted a career that would make them proud.
“When my kids get to school, I don’t want them saying, ‘My daddy works at Sonic,” McDonald said.
McDonald heard about the Local 67 through a friend. He was interested in the opportunity and education the union offered, even if he spent his first six months making $9 an hour as an apprentice in training.
His first job with the 67 was in Buda, near Austin.
Gas prices made the 75-mile commute too expensive on his limited budget, so he spent several weeks living in a tent on the job site.
“I tried to sleep in my car, but I couldn’t do it,” he said. “The tent was mesh, so if it rained, it would come straight in.”
The effort paid off. McDonald is now an apprentice and he is currently working at Fort Hood. The commute from Kempner and the classes he has to take twice a week in Austin to work toward being a journeyman put him on the road a lot.
McDonald heads to Austin for union-sponsored training every Tuesday and Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. He said despite the time and effort involved, it is a great opportunity.
“When I was living in the tent, I was looking at the future,” he said. “I was striving because the union provides stability. After four years, I should be at $25 an hour.”
‘A lot of training, travel and hard work’
Wayne Hemenez is a foreman at YPS Facility Services, which is involved in a major construction project at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood. Hemenez has been a member of the Local 67 since 1974, and he understands why so many young men are willing to go all out like McDonald to become a journeyman.
“It requires a lot of training, travel and hard work, but it is an opportunity to support your family in a way that would be tough to do on your own,” he said. “The union provides the education and hands-on experience necessary to become a journeyman. And you earn a living while you do it.”
But it is not free. First-year apprentices pay union dues of $53 a month. The dues escalate every year of the apprenticeship until topping out at around $80 a month for a journeyman. Not to mention, journeyman isn’t just a euphemism.
“This job requires a lot of travel,” Hemenez said.
And for Hemenez, it’s a family affair. His son, Jeff Hemenez, actually left college to join the union and work toward being a journeyman.
Jeff Hemenez is in year two of a four-year apprenticeship. The 22-year-old Thorndale resident commutes to Fort Hood every day and works with his father from 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he heads to Austin for the classes he needs to become a journeyman.
“I have done 90 percent of my work in the last two years on Fort Hood,” he said. “I am pretty used to it. I have gotten the lay of the land around here, and I have learned a lot about my profession and how to work with government people.”
Wayne said apprentices and journeymen currently working at Fort Hood might as well get used to the area. He said the Local 67 could have work for years to come in the area.
“We’re working on the barracks right now,” he said. “But I am hoping we land the contract for the Carl Darnall hospital. That would mean a major contract. We would be looking at another two years of work.”
Good times for Salado company
And it is not only out-of-town union commuters enjoying growth in the Killeen area. Curtis Howard of Center Line Welding in Salado said the industry is also booming for local sheet metal workers.
“Last year, I had a lot of free time,” he said. “This year, my receipts have tripled.”
While it is hard for independent contractors like Howard to compete with larger entities for lucrative Fort Hood contracts, he said there is enough work in the area to go around the 90-mile radius he services.
“A lot of the increase has to do with the construction coming back in this area,” he said. “Austin and Killeen are booming.”
At a time when most industries are struggling or barely making it, it might not be a surprise the sheet metal industry is attracting so many young men with strong work ethics.
Juan Diaz is another YPC employee and Local 67 apprentice going to great lengths to earn his stripes. The 34-year-old father of three said he is willing to commute from Waco to Fort Hood and attend evening classes in Austin because it is the only way his family can get medical coverage.
“I’m not going to say I’m set,” said Diaz, who is in year three of his apprenticeship. “But my whole family is covered. All my kids and my wife are insured.”