Sheet Metal Workers Local 137, the Sign Manufacturers and Erectors, is a small union with a big niche: Its 480 active members fabricate and install signs, from metal plaques in building lobbies to the towering video billboards that light up Times Square.
Chris Japutra, 31, will complete his five-year apprenticeship in May, and “is going to be one of our lead guys, I can tell,” says Local 137 training coordinator Peter Scaglione. “Chris has always done everything he had to do meticulously.”
Japutra, from Farmingdale, Long Island, came to the program after working as a construction inspector and serving six years in the Army Reserve. The inspection job had piqued his interest in construction, and he was tired of working without benefits or security. The apprenticeship, he says, offered him a career where he could plan for the future.
“I felt like it would give me the opportunity to better my life,” he says. “It’s something solid.”
Unlike most building-trades workers, says Scaglione, sign makers and installers tend to have steady jobs at one company, usually “mom-and-pop-type setups.” Japutra’s been working at one of them, the 115-year-old Going Sign & Servicing Company in Plainview, since he started. He’s attached logos “50 stories up on the side of a building”; put in signage at the Bethpage Ballpark, home of the Long Island Ducks minor-league baseball team; and learned how to build box signs and channel-letter signs, signs with the letters cut out of aluminum.
He’s also obtained the licenses he needs to qualify as a journeyman, including certificates for 3G unlimited welding from the American Welding Society, for hand-signaling from the National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators, and several Occupational Safety and Health Administration qualifications.
Local 137 offers courses that lead to 42 different licenses and certifications, says Scaglione, in areas such as rigging, crane operation, and working on scaffolds. This is important, he explains, because the apprenticeship “is a five-year-long audition, and that’s what makes or breaks you in the industry.” Once a journeyman, he adds, someone like Japutra can move up to get a master rigger or master sign hanger’s license.
Going is “one of our best fabricators,” says Scaglione, and does “a lot of fine-detail work.” “They taught me a lot,” says Japutra. “We’re like a family.”
The apprenticeship program is also about getting young workers more involved in the union, says Scaglione. “You’re trying to maintain your work,” he explains, noting the Related Companies’ use of nonunion labor on the Hudson Yards development.
One “big thing for the labor movement” Local 137 members will work on soon is the Triangle Fire museum, scheduled to open next year. Going is one of three union contractors bidding to work on the museum’s exterior, which will include a metal ribbon running up to the building’s roof, the names of the fire’s 146 victims on a mirrored stainless-steel plaque, and LED lights projecting their names onto the sidewalk.
“It’s really going to be spectacular,” says Scaglione.