April 7, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Building engineers at One Bryant Park’s 51-story, 2.35 million square-foot Bank of America Tower [BOA] may still have to field complaints about a clogged toilet from time to time, but their subterranean control room with its ever-glowing wall of flat screen monitors looks like something straight out of NASA Mission Control, and the hi-tech training they receive to keep the power on and the air pumping inside the third-tallest building in New York City, never really ever stops.
Timothy Clark, 24, brought a Bachelor’s of Engineering degree from SUNY Maritime College and enough mechanical knowledge to operate any commercial ship on the water – but the U.S. Coast Guard-licensed graduate was staggered when he initially started working at the BOA Tower just prior to Hurricane Sandy two years ago.
“It was a little overwhelming in the beginning,” Clark recently told LaborPress. “There was a lot to take in with a building of this magnitude.”
Like every other newcomer to the International Union of Operating Engineers [IUOE] Local 94, Clark is receiving an extraordinarily solid education in building operation and maintenance through the union’s innovative Training Program.
It’s a special initiative funded by employers that not only provides new workers with the initial tools they need to perform their duties, it is also enables the union’s roughly 6,000 members – presently working in about 800 mostly commercial buildings, as well as schools, hotels and power plants across the city – to grow and develop as digital and “green building" technology continues to change the industry.
“New is only temporary,” says IUOE Local 94 Training Director Howard Styles. “There’s always something else coming out. In this business things get old very fast. That’s what keeps our enrollment going.”
The Training Program, which now schools anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 members annually, and offers a wide variety of FDNY and other career-advancing certifications, started out modestly in a basement back in 1986.
“Back in the 80s, building automation was the big thing,” Styles says. “That kind of changed everything. Workers in the industry at that time were kind of excited, but also a little afraid at the same time. They were excited about the new technology, but afraid it would take away their jobs. Well, that didn’t happen – we just learned the technology.”
Clark is currently building on his already impressive base of knowledge with a course in electrical and critical systems held at the Training Program’s modern classroom facilities located at 331 West 44th Street.
The Hicksville, Long Island resident is using the training he is receiving there to help him manage the BOA Tower’s crucial Uninterruptible Power Source [UPS] system – the sophisticated hi-tech array that "scrubs" dirty power directly sent in from the utility and makes it suitable for building use.
“With the classes, I’m always thinking, ‘How can I relate that to the building?’’ Clark says.
The amount of juice needed to power the Durst-owned structure’s heating, cooling and other critical systems at any given time is awesome – about 5,000 kilowatts on the BOA’s side of the building alone.
Building engineers refer to the unwanted electrical spikes or dips that can sometimes occur in the UPS system as “sag/swell” – something that can really put a dent in a worker's whole day.
“Things can go wrong at anytime,” Clark says. “It’s not a normal job. You can’t just walk away from it. You're always involved with something.”
Indeed, the UPS system set off alarm bells just prior to LaborPress’ recent visit to the BOA Tower. Thanks to their advanced training, however, Local 94’s building engineers were quickly able to diagnose the problem and stabilize the issue before any critical equipment was actually damaged.
“The regular office worker in a building sees the person in uniform, and the perception is that person is just a ‘maintenance guy,’” Styles says. "Whereas, in reality, that person is actually a skilled and highly technically-trained professional.”
The biggest test of the BOA Tower engineers’ training so far, came during Hurricane Sandy when surging flood waters on the East Side knocked out the vital power node feeding the building, forcing the crew to swiftly switch over to six, two-megawatt generators housed on site.
“We were on generator for five or six days,” says Clark. “Guys who could come in and stay, stayed. It was a long week. We were working around the clock standing watch and monitoring fuel consumption and the UPS. But we kept the lights on and services going for the bank.”
At that point, Clark had only been at the BOA Tower for less than a year. Despite the considerable stress and demands of the job, however, he never once doubted that he had made the right career decision.
“It was great the way the crew was able to come together,” Clark says. “We have guys on the job that are newer than myself, and we also have guys that have been in the union for over 20 years. Everyone brings a different experience – and we’re able to use that to our benefit.”
Co-worker Ivan Melendez, 46, was a 32BJ freight operator up until five years ago, when he switched careers and became a building engieneer. He’s been working at the BOA Tower for about a year-and-a-half and hasn’t looked back.
“I came from residential, but I wanted to be more involved with the [power] plant,” the Bronx resident said. “I’ve gone through all the training and it has helped a lot.”
Local 94 members currently enjoy 100 percent employment – and its been that way for a long time. The last time union members experienced any sort of interruption came in the aftermath of 9/11.
“We haven’t had any layoffs for as long as I can remember,” Styles says. “That’s why we’re different from a lot of other trades. They go through layoffs and furloughs. We’re dealing with existing buildings, and we don’t experience the same kinds of problems.”
In addition to helping members to continually advance their careers, much of Local 94’s Training Program is steadfastly devoted to safety.
“In their facilities they face a lot danger,” Styles says. “A lot of things there can hurt them if they don’t know how to properly deal with them. These things can be either fatal or they can seriously injure. So, safety is a big part of it all.”
That high-level of safety instruction is also another important way that Local 94 continues to distinguish itself.
“That’s what separates us,” Styles adds. “If we were a non-union operation and our big buildings were using non-union workers, they wound not have this type of thorough safety training.”
The Local 94 Training Program director has been in the industry for almost 35 years, and held his current position for the last decade. After all this time, the Staten Island resident says he still has a passion for teaching.
“I can’t describe the satisfaction I get from seeing students either advancing their careers, or just attaining a certain certification,” Styles says. “It’s such a rewarding feeling.”
With four training classes already to his credit, Clark plans to soon take even more courses on his way to one day becoming a chief engineer.
“To work in a hi-tech building like this as my first job – you can’t put a price tag on it,” Clark says. “It’s just a wonderful experience.”