The title on Mark P. Martinez’s business card reads, “American Dream Coordinator.” That might sound like puffery, but Martinez is sincere in his belief that most people can find meaningful, well-paying employment in the building and construction industry.

“I use the title as a conversation opener to describe what I do,” Martinez, 60, explained. “Namely, to fight for fair wages and benefits, a safe work environment, fairness and equity, the ability for hard-working people to retire in dignity, and the opportunity to introduce young people to a career path unknown to most.”

Martinez is executive secretary of the Pierce County Building Trades Council in Tacoma, which represents approximately 4,000 workers in Pierce County, and president of the Washington Building Trades Council in Olympia, which represents approximately 50,000 people statewide.

For years, his top priority has been to recruit more people into building and construction trades via apprenticeship programs.

“It really is ‘earn while you learn,’” Martinez said. He noted that a four-year construction apprenticeship program can be a great alternative for someone who might not be inclined to attend a traditional four-year university. Most apprenticeship programs are of little cost to its participants, according to Martinez, and apprentices earn a livable wage while learning their trades. Moreover, a successful apprentice can usually find work once the program is completed. “It’s probably one of the best-kept secrets in the education system, unfortunately.”

Martinez said he would like to see more people — and not just high school graduates — fill the industry’s pipeline of available workers. To that end, he has worked with the Department of Corrections in Purdy to help former inmates transition from prison to apprenticeship programs through Handcuffs to Hardhats, as well as former military personnel transition out of the armed forces and into construction jobs through Helmets to Hardhats.

South Sound Business recently spoke to Martinez to learn more about his 40-year career in the building and construction field, industry trends, and where the construction jobs are in the South Sound.

Q: You worked as a roofer in the building and construction industry for 20 years. How did you get started in that line of work?

A: I (had) graduated from Bellarmine (Preparatory School in Tacoma), and (was) trying to figure out what I wanted to do. A family friend who owned a roofing company said, “Come work for me for a summer, and you will be begging to go to (college) by the fall.”

That’s the only lie he ever told me. I was an 18-year-old kid making three times the minimum wage in 1976. I was outside, working hard, and I loved what I was doing. I worked for the summer, and then the owner asked me, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, I would like to stay.” He said, “OK; we’ll get you in the apprenticeship program and actually get some training for you.”

Q: How did the transition come about, from being outdoors and installing roofs to lobbying in Olympia and leading industry organizations?

A: As with every life change I ever had, somebody said, “Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee? I want to talk to you about something.” So, the (local union’s) business manager at the time said, “You look like you have leadership potential. Why don’t you think about running for office?” That was in 1994. I won my election, and I have been running for my job ever since.

Q: Expanding apprenticeship, and even pre-apprenticeship, programs has been a big goal for you. Why? Is it that there’s not a pipeline of new workers entering the building and construction trades industry?

A: Partially, there’s not a big pipeline of workers coming in. Unfortunately, we have an education system that continues to stress college as being the only successful pathway, and everything else is kind of secondary. I think you are seeing more and more media and literature that show — and I hate the term — “middle-skill careers” are actually advancing faster than something you would need a bachelor’s or master’s degree for. We need to get the education (system) to start reinvesting back into career technical education.

Q: Why are pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs so important?

A: Construction is kind of a different culture. It’s not your normal office job, or your factory job, even. If you just kind of drop into it, it can be extremely overwhelming. Apprenticeship programs teach (people) what to expect. I always stress that this is not a temporary agency. We want applicants that are career-minded. (This is) not just a job, but this is a career because we are going to ask you to invest a certain amount of time into obtaining these (skills).

Q: Are these program participants all out of high school?

A: No. (Some) applicants have bounced around in jobs for a while. They are 28, 29, and 30 years old and, all of a sudden, they say, “I’m married. I have children. I have minimal benefits. I’ve got to do something.”

Q: Some are also former prison inmates. Tell me about the Handcuffs to Hardhats program.

A: Now we are fishing in other pools. How do we engage other populations that would work really well in our culture, and how do we (provide) opportunities to people who probably never had opportunities before? For our apprenticeship programs, your incarceration history doesn’t really matter. Our biggest thing is, “Can you show up on time every day five days a week?” If you can do that, I can teach you anything else.

Q: I would imagine that is one of the few opportunities for inmates coming out of prison to find meaningful employment.

A: It is. One year, during Construction Career Day out at the (Puyallup) fairgrounds, I was helping set up when this young man with the roofers union tapped me on the shoulder. He said, “You probably don’t remember me, but you came to where I was incarcerated and gave a presentation about your apprenticeship program. I was in the audience. A lot of us listened. I just wanted to shake your hand and say, ‘Thank you.’ When I came out (of prison), the first thing I did was sign up for the apprenticeship program. I got a job, straightened out my life, and now I’ve got healthcare for my kids. I’m working on my pension when I retire. I’m going to be here until I finally quit.’” That was huge!

Q: What tips can you offer for someone who wants to find a job in the building and construction industry?

A: Think about exploring what you want to do. Do you like working with machinery? You might think about being an operator. Do you like being up high and seeing the sights? You might think about being a roofer. Do you like working with wood? Carpentry might be something for you. There are all sorts of different crafts out there. Explore what looks like fun to you.

Go to the website of the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, which oversees our registered apprenticeship programs. They have a listing of all the programs and where to make an application. Make that application, and then be consistent and persistent, just like any other job.

Q: In January, you joined U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer in Washington, D.C., to attend the State of the Union address. What was that experience like?

A: I was quite honored to be asked. Congressman Kilmer called me and said, “Mark, I want you to come because I want you to talk about infrastructure to the congressional folks.” That’s not an invitation you get but once in your lifetime. It was quite the experience. I’m a roofer from Tacoma, and I got to go to the State of the Union. I thought that was pretty cool. Listening to the (president’s) speech — because of who I am, I didn’t agree with most of it — it was interesting to watch. It is one of the iconic things of our democracy.

Q: You don’t work full-time as a roofer anymore. It sounds like you spend a lot of the time in meetings in Tacoma and Olympia. Do you miss being outside, working on construction sites, and installing roofs?

A: At times, I do. What I miss most is that, at the end of the day, you see exactly what you did. Was it a good day? Did I get this (job) accomplished? In the job I have now, sometimes you just grind away for a long time. That’s probably the biggest difference in there. I kid a lot of people, and say, “I have two more roofs to do in my life — my own and my brother’s, and that’s about it.” I just turned 60 (years old). It’s a little harder every year to get up there.