"The best part of this job is being able to see things you built throughout the Pittsburgh region."
In high school, Mark Beckett had his mind set on college, taking AP classes in preparation for studying criminology. A part-time stint helping a family friend build a house set him on a different path.
“ ‘You know you’re pretty good with your hands. Have you ever considered the ironworkers? They’re hiring all the time,’ ” he recalls the friend remarking. Mark took the test – basic aptitude and mathematics, answering questions about cranes, ropes and cables. He didn’t pass the first time, but came back a year later. The interviewers remembered him.
“I said, ‘Yep, and I’m going to be here next year, and the year after that, until you take me.’ “
That upbeat persistence – along with the brusque joking that is characteristic of Pittsburgh-area natives -- are among the characteristics of this now-journeyman ironworker and project manager. So is a pride in being part of some of the region’s most storied structures and landmarks.
“The best part of this job is being able to look throughout the Pittsburgh region at some of the stuff that you built,” he says. They include the The Tower at PNC, slated to be the world’s “greenest” skyrise when it opens in 2015, Heinz Field, the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Center, UPMC’s Biomedical Science Tower, as well as power plants, bridges, schools and light-rail stations across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and in Nebraska.
“There are headaches: being up in the air on a half-built structure when the snow is coming at you sideways,” he says. “But there are more rewards. You’re building something that may be there 100 years from now, that your kids and their kids will point out and say, ‘He built that.’ It’s like we’re building monuments.”
Of course, the excellent pay and stable benefits don’t hurt. “In my first year as an apprentice, I made $30,000; you were in debt for $30,000,” he quipped, referring rhetorically to college students. “After five years I was $150,000 ahead; you were $150,000 in debt.”
Marks’s willingness, during one go-go stretch in his early 30s, to take out-of-town jobs and overtime, allowed him to earn that much in a year. “I made my money, put money away, now I’m set,” he says. “It got me ahead in life. I know people with college degrees who are working at Sheetz.”
Ironworker apprenticeships typically last three years, including seven weeks of training throughout each year at the union’s facility along Liberty Avenue in the Strip District. The rest of the time is spent “earning while learning” on the job shadowing journeymen ironworkers with years – and sometimes decades of experience.