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Utility workers essential commodities

Experience, varied skills make them valuable to small manufacturers

Tony Brennan, LCW Automotive's director of research and development, checks the alignment on a limousine. Brennan's repertoire of trades includes electrical, metal fabrication, and woodwork. Tony Brennan, LCW Automotive's director of research and development, checks the alignment on a limousine. Brennan's repertoire of trades includes electrical, metal fabrication, and woodwork. (Bahram Mark Sobhani / San Antoinio Express-News)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Adolfo Pesquera
San Antonio Express-News / March 16, 2008

SAN ANTONIO - In the corporate white-collar world, they may be called multitaskers, but employers for the industrial blue-collar equivalent borrowed their term from baseball.

Or was it the other way around?

The utility man, valued for his ability to play several positions, isn't necessarily switching from second baseman to outfielder.

"You know what a chef, cook, and bottle washer is? That's me," said Tony Brennan, director of research and development at San Antonio-based limousine manufacturer LCW Automotive. Brennan, 50, closed his Pennsylvania custom auto shop and brought a quarter-century of experience when he reunited in 2004 with Ken Boyar, owner of LCW Automotive. Both worked together in the auto body business in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Brennan's repertoire of trades includes electrical, metal fabrication, and woodwork.

His experience and breadth of practical skills afford him the ability to design production systems, then to teach crews how to use them. He is the quality assurance chief of Boyar's operation.

"I work on three or four projects at once," Brennan said.

Moving from section to section on the production floor, Brennan may oversee a team making fiberglass parts for a floorboard one minute and interior wire assembly the next.

Most utility workers are not as high on the management chart as Brennan, but Boyar is always looking for workers who have several trades under their belt.

For a small manufacturer, it's the most efficient way to keep production flowing, Boyar said.

"We don't have the mass production volume to afford keeping a lot of people that just do one thing," Boyar said. "A utility man can strip the car and paint.

He can do the electrical, upholstery, pretty much everything."

Utility workers are common in small manufacturing operations in many fields. Pay scales change from one industry to the next. Utility workers are found in the aircraft industry and such workers are coveted by LCW. But Brennan admits aircraft workers usually pass on the limo maker's job offers. "They're used to big bucks," Brennan said, noting aircraft craftspeople tend to be overqualified.

"Just one example, an aircraft metal fabricator may know how to work with titanium. We don't use titanium," Brennan said.

Luis Fernandez supervises 18 men in the upholstery department of Gore Design Completions Ltd. at Port San Antonio, Texas. The company builds luxury interiors on corporate and passenger class aircraft. Five of the men in his shop, including Salvador Zurita, are considered utility men.

Zurita, 59, started as an upholsterer. With 38 years in the trade - the past two at Gore Design - he also learned furniture and cabinet installation. And there is the challenge of navigating Federal Aviation Administration rules.

"Seventy-five percent of what we do is paperwork," Zurita said. "Everything has to be installed according to FAA regulations; nothing goes into an airplane without inspections."

Gore Design doesn't discuss salaries, but Fernandez said workers understand their pay is based on their level of experience and how well they utilize their time.

No one leaves a trade school as a utility man. Entry-level workers may know how to do one thing, but it is their willingness to learn new things once they are in a factory environment that determines their future wages and job satisfaction.

Graham Medellin, 26, left St. Philip's College with training in auto mechanics. He started at LCW upgrading suspension springs on the limo conversions. Within a year, he had learned enough about wire assembly, metal fabrication, and upholstery to move to the interior renovations team.

Medellin said he's been happy in his short time at the factory and has learned more than he could have imagined. It's common, he's noticed, for people to build on what they know and to acquire other trades along the way.

Chae Chang, 26, knew car stereo installation when he started at LCW. He can handle just about any wire job now, as well as metal fabrication.

"You need to be cross-trained on how it's done here," Chang said.

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