Robert Stokes, a veteran instructor in refrigeration and air-conditioning installation and repair, has worked at several technical schools since he began teaching in 1985. But only one of them became his home: Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ’s Training Fund.

Last year, more than 20,000 of the maintenance workers, cleaners and other building-service employees the union represents took a class in the extensive program. About 90,000 full-time employees represented by the union are eligible to enroll in the training fund, which is collectively-bargained and funded by employers.


Significantly Expanded

The program began during the 1970s under the union’s president, Thomas Shortman. Linda Nelson became director of the training fund in 2003 and oversees 50 staffers, as well as 200 instructors. Although the program only offered courses in the city, Newark and Westchester when she began working there, now there are about 50 locations across the Northeast and Florida.

The fund partners with local colleges, including Hostos Community College and Queens College, in order to provide more space. It also “allows members to get exposed to higher education, so that maybe once they take our class they say, ‘Oh, I’ve been at a community college before, maybe I can take something else to improve myself,” Ms. Nelson said.

Throughout the fall, winter and spring trimesters, the fund offers more than 200 courses, from English-as-a-Second-Language to carpentry basics. Some classes are just one session that lasts a few hours, others are year-long programs. Prospective students can take one of 11 career tracks, allowing them to develop the skills to become a handyperson or a security professional.  The most popular career ladder was for workers looking to become a superintendent, Ms. Nelson noted.

Mr. Stokes, who in 2008 began at 32BJ teaching a range of courses from electrical and heat pump repair to EPA certification courses, previously taught at Local 94, APEX Technical School and Local 638.

‘Have Great Time Here’

“I always say the training program is between a two- and a four-year college. I give that classification because of the extent of the courses that are being taught here,” he explained. “This has been one of the best locations that I have worked in in terms of teaching, in terms of the students, the staff—I have a great time here.”

Gaetano Proveido, a porter who began taking courses in 2017 and wants to start his own refrigeration business, has taken more than 40 classes so far. “It’s attractive to be involved in many other fields,” he said. “It helps you get a larger view of the industry.”

Once you start learning, he added, “You never stop.”

Because of the breadth of experience the instructors have, “there’s a lot of information that you cannot learn in a classic school,” he said.

Sometimes those increased skills can lead members out of the union. “If you do the HVAC track, you might eventually go to another union, but we’re totally fine with that because if you’re moving up, that’s a great advertisement for the program,” Ms. Nelson said.

Value of ‘Old Stuff’

The union’s relationship with various residential and commercial buildings helps the training fund obtain broken-down and aging air-conditioning units and refrigerators.

“We need old stuff because buying new equipment doesn’t show how to repair it,” Ms. Nelson said.

“Everybody that comes in here goes, ‘Oh why did you give me this beat-up refrigerator?’” Mr. Stokes said. “Because guess what, every now and then we go into a building and we see a refrigerator that is used. If it’s brand-new, guess who’s not going to touch it? You.”

One of the main reasons 32BJ moved its headquarters to 25 West 18th St. in 2011 was because it wanted to prioritize expanding the training fund. “That building wasn’t equipped to be a school,” Ms. Nelson explained.

That location has 22 classrooms, where plumbing, electrical, fire safety and a rope safety class for window cleaners are among the offerings.

A Mutual Learning Process

Mr. Stokes previously performed systems maintenance at the World Trade Center, where he redirected water and cleared barnacles out of the pipes.  But he said he preferred sharing his knowledge from his years working in the field, because he’s continuously learning from his students.

“I have more enjoyment being able to pass on information to someone and to help them move from Point A to Point B then Point C,” he said.

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