Secretary of Labor Tom Perez kicked off the first National Apprenticeship Week Nov. 3 by touring the Washington, D.C., Local 26 training center.

Secretary of Labor Perez watching a demonstration of building lighting control systems with instructor Mike Miller.

The secretary bent conduit, set off a test fire alarm, took questions from apprentices and sang the praises of getting paid to learn a trade.

“You all have the patent on apprenticeship that we are trying to replicate in other fields. You’ve shown us how it’s done,” Perez said. “What I see here is a virtuous cycle of people punching their ticket to the middle class.”

Perez’s appearance underscored the importance of union run apprenticeship programs as a model for workforce development.

“Now the president is working to bring this to information technology and health care work workforce training,” Perez said.

Perez said that every dollar the federal government spends supporting apprenticeship programs produces more than $27 in revenue.

The secretary was welcomed to the training center by Local 26 Business Manager Chuck Graham and three apprentices, each in their third year.

Secretary of Labor Perez, Chuck Graham and State Sen. Jim Rosapepe with apprentices in the motor control lab.

David Hartman worked on bomb laser-guidance-systems in the Air Force before meeting a Local 26 member on a golf course. Jessica Hitt had gone to college and was working in an accounting office before deciding to turn her interest in alternative power into a career. Najee Thrash had been working a series of technician jobs, fixing parking meters, fixing speed cameras, fixing copiers, when a friend of his joined the apprenticeship.

“This is what apprentices look like in 2015: everybody and anybody,” Graham said.

Secretary Perez was brought to a half-dozen classrooms including motor controls, lighting automation, conduit bending and computer-aided design.  He pulled off his suit jacket and apprentices Nicholas Payne and Matt Weitzel walked him through a simple 90-degree bend on some ¾ inch-diameter conduit.

“I’ve been to many IBEW training centers,” Perez said. “I am always reminded of how sophisticated this training is. This isn’t an alternative to college, this is the other college.”

Secretary of Labor Perez setting off the same test fire alarm switch activated by President Obama during his 2009 visit to Local 26.

In the lighting classroom Perez was introduced to the wireless systems that control automated window coverings and lighting systems in modern office buildings. Perez said he felt like he was “in the Jetson’s house.”

In most of the classrooms, Perez asked the apprentices what the hardest part of the training was.

Nham Nguyen said it was deciding what part of the industry to specialize in.

“Just picking a branch is the hardest part,” said the Army veteran.

Perez said that Nguyen had an “enviable dilemma.”

“That tells me that all of you here are in the right job, because any of the directions you choose have good pay and a good future.”