June 2011

Signs, Signs Everywhere
Niche Classification Lights It All
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In the world's largest consumer economy, their work is everywhere. From the corporate logos atop skyscrapers to the scoreboards at Major League Baseball stadiums to vinyl letters saying "open for business," the work of the IBEW's sign erectors bellows and beckons across North America. When brands change and companies merge or fold, new signs herald the change. That's a major market for the signatory companies and the men and women, jacks-of-all-trades, who make their living digging, pouring concrete, welding steel, maneuvering cranes and supplying power for signs as loud as Las Vegas and as Middle America as Kalamazoo, Mich.

Only 10 IBEW locals still carry the symbol "se" — sign erectors — in their jurisdictions. But dozens more have, among their ranks, proud and experienced sign erectors. Members like Kenyon Crouch.

"I enjoy the diversity of the sign erector trade," says Crouch, a Las Vegas Local 357 executive board member who mastered the ropes in Young Electric Sign Co.'s apprenticeship program. He helped hone the curriculum for newer members and has installed signs inside Rockefeller Center in New York City and at casinos in Louisiana, New Mexico and Peru.

"They say Las Vegas is the sign capital of our nation," says Crouch, a 22-year member, who helped erect signs on the Hard Rock and worked on the light canopy show on Fremont Street in old Las Vegas, where an LED-illuminated Thunderbird jet travels — with sound effects — across four city blocks. Crouch, who often operates a 70-foot bucket truck or works off the kinds of platforms used by window washers says, "Heights don't bother me. I skydive as a hobby."

Once employing as many as 500 workers, Utah-based Young Electric Sign Co., one of four large sign outfits in Las Vegas, is now down to 200. Computer-aided design, new manufacturing tools like plasma cutters and the shift away from labor-intensive neon to LED displays have reduced job opportunities.

Crouch, who migrated to Las Vegas from Alaska, where he was in college to become an accountant, says he is often the last worker the customer sees when he supplies power to a sign. "I get the praise, but other people did the hard stuff on design and manufacturing." It takes a lot of talent to travel from a rough sketch by a customer to final production.

"Sign making is an art. We are seven trades in one," says Crouch. The apprenticeship includes classes in sheet metal fabrication, rigging, layout, welding, electricity and even glass blowing.

"Some IBEW electricians don't realize that sign erectors are one of our jurisdictions," says Brian Stobart, a St. Louis Local 1 shop steward, a third-generation Brotherhood sign erector whose brother, brother-in-law and son are in the trade.

Piros Signs, Stobart's employer, is a 55-year-old company that proudly promotes its IBEW and Painters work forces, union logos and all, on its Web site. Piros specializes in signage on skyscrapers. Stobart recently was part of a three-man crew that spent six weeks installing a 120-foot-high LED display on the side of Lumiere's giant casino facing the Mississippi River. The total weight of the sign, assembled in the air in 50-by-80-foot sections, was 250,000 pounds. The job was valued at $8 million.

Paul Regan, a member of Rock Island, Ill., Local 145, works for Acme Sign Co. in Davenport, Iowa. A shop steward, Regan says his small "mom and pop" employer is the only union sign shop in the right-to-work state. Sometimes traveling as far as Wisconsin and Illinois on jobs for companies like McDonald's and Hardee's, Regan says competing with large nonunion shops is demanding, but so are the challenges of modifying signs built by others to suit their applications.

Regan recently worked on the installation of a 170-foot sign for a bank in Moline, using a 200-ton crane. He has also performed more than 20 sign changeovers for GM auto dealers that have discontinued selling Pontiac or Cadillac models.

Bill Whitehead, owner of signatory Accel Sign Group in Pittsburgh, says the technology of signage has changed drastically over the years. But Whitehead, who founded his company in 2002, says the obstacles in bringing jobs to completion are ever-present.

Many municipalities have outsourced their permitting, dragging out approval for new signs. "I have to get the customer to understand that the sign can be completed in five weeks, but it may take five more weeks to get approval," he says.

Whitehead, who employs members of Pittsburgh Local 385, takes jobs as small as a vinyl sign saying "open for business" to 80- to-90 foot-high signs on an interstate highway. Getting work is like playing baseball, he says: "You swing at every pitch."

"I can usually tell within the first few weeks if a new hire has the talent for the job," says Whitehead. "They have to gain competency in working with cement, welding, setting steel and operating cranes and they can't be afraid of heights." Rising costs to fill the gas tanks of 55,000-pound bucket and crane trucks take a bigger bite out of profits, says Whitehead, who often wins subcontracts from large, out-of-state companies, which tap his knowledge of local permitting processes.

While they are a diminishing trade, sign erectors cherish their identity. A few years back, Crouch met another worker who introduced himself as a "union carpenter." After that encounter, Crouch changed his answer when asked about his career. "I tell folks that I'm a union sign erector," says Crouch, who was part of a successful effort 15 years ago to get sign erectors and other smaller units represented on Local 357's executive board.

Confronted by members of other trades who feel his crew is encroaching on their jurisdictions, Brian Stobart pulls out his union card and says, "Anything that can be done with a sign we do. It's our work."

Local 357 members Kenyon Crouch, left, Craig Rodery, Nick Jaeger, Brian Leming and Joe Groom install signs at Las Vegas International Airport.

The sign business is rapidly changing, with more elaborate lighting displays being erected, like the massive light canopy show on Fremont Street in Las Vegas.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Snap Man.