Members share their tips for keeping busy when work slows down

In our industry, we swing between extreme booms in work and, on the flip side, we experience lulls, too. We interviewed a few Union Carpenters to learn how they’ve kept busy working, why reputation matters, and how continued training can help you become more valuable on the job.

Journeyman JoAnn Lay, LU 1503

JoAnn Lay, LU 1503
Foreman for JE Dunn; Portland, OR

What has kept you busy during slowdowns?

Historically, construction does cycle up and down. There are high times and low times. One thing you can do for yourself is to make yourself the most valuable player on your job. You have to be able to do all the things and be able to do a job from start to finish. That way they don’t have to switch you out for another player who can do the work. You could be pouring a retaining wall one day and installing bathroom fixtures the next, but you will stay busy.

I took all the additional training I could in the first years of my apprenticeship. There are core classes and continuing education on top of that. I highly suggest taking hardware, layout, and computer classes. And all those things are skills they can’t take away from you–you can take that knowledge with you to any job site.

Something I’ve found is some of our journeymen and apprentices don’t take the time to learn about our industry. Part of my job as a foreman is to look ahead at what’s needed. So I look at who on my team can do the work and I try to give them the resources they need to tackle it. If I hand a book off and ask someone to learn something, if they toss it aside, that hurts all of us. 

Being ready and willing to do a little bit more can come back tenfold.

Any advice for apprentices?

Getting laid off is part of our culture–it’s what’s supposed to happen. Either they move you to the next job because they’re busy and have enough work, or they lay you off so you can draw unemployment while you find your next job. It’s definitely a hit to your ego. But sometimes, there’s just not enough work to keep everyone busy. Don’t take it as a personal affront to your skill. The best thing you can do is have a good attitude about it because it opens up another opportunity.

Another important part of our culture is networking. I can’t recommend the Foreman Leadership Training enough. On Zoom or in person, our industry leaders attend those meetings. You’ve got owners and supers who are looking for their ranks. They’re looking for anyone who’s taking the time out of their day to advance themselves and their craft and it shows initiative and drive.

It’s also important to show up with your best attitude and be the person that someone needs at their job. Bring that to your job, your local meetings, training, and classes and people will notice. I used to be the guy throwing tools off the roof and I’m still fighting that reputation 20 years later. If you’re like that, no one wants to see you grow.


Want to learn more about our Foreman Leadership Training?

Contact Dale Dvorak

Apprentice Kane O'neill, LU 82

Kane O’Neill, LU 82
3rd Period Apprentice; Butte, MT

What sort of things have kept you working during slowdowns?

If you make yourself available, you’ll stay busy. I’ve worked with the same company the whole time I’ve been an apprentice. I’ve seen people laid off, but if you’re willing to learn and show up, you stay around.

We also lucked out in Montana, since we didn’t have too many shutdowns due to COVID, so we’ve stayed busy. It’s been good since you get to meet friends and co-workers you can check with for work. I’m sure with time, some of us will be foremen–so it’s good to keep in touch.

There’s also so much training available. Once you get caught up, your paycheck increases to reflect the more you know. Lately, I’ve been trying to get as much training in as I can. We have a vast amount of resources at our disposal. You’re only hurting yourself if you don’t take advantage of it. Your only limit is where you want to stop.

Some people are rethinking their careers after losing their jobs in 2020. What would you tell them if they were considering a union apprenticeship?

The apprenticeship is a lot like a degree. It’s a show of the investment of your time in your career. On top of that, my instructor went through it and he was talking about how you can get your bachelor’s or associate’s with the credits you earn. You get a lot more opportunities through it than just a job. You can go every which way with it–management, teaching, politics. It’s what you make of it.

I would have told my younger self to get into the apprenticeship sooner–I’d be way further along and know more. There’s always going to be a demand for tradesmen and skilled labor. You hit my age (28) and reality hits that you have to start thinking about the long term. When I was 18, I wasn’t thinking about careers and benefits, and retirement. The money is a big draw, but it’s hard because labor gets a bad rap. 

The union always has your back too and you’ll always have guys in your corner if something goes wrong. There are few companies today that I can say would do that.

Krista Farmer, LU 1503
Journeyman; Portland, OR

What has kept you busy during slowdowns?

When I was an apprentice, if I wasn’t working, I was looking into classes. Training in first aid/CPR and other classes make you more valuable as a hire. Things have slowed down due to COVID, so this is an opportunity to learn some new skills or complete a required class. This training can lead to more opportunities when work picks up again.

On top of training, keep in touch with the people you’ve enjoyed working with or learned from. Keep up to date with their contacts so when you need to network, you’ll have their information. Ask your Council representatives which contractors to contact for available jobs.

And don’t forget to attend your local meetings–especially the virtual ones. It’s good to know who your reps are and know what work is coming up when they give their job report.

Any other advice for your fellow carpenters?

As union carpenters, we are trained workers providing a quality product. Never lose sight of the fact that we are a valuable part of the process and don’t let other people minimize the work you do. Nothing would get built if we didn’t show up.

That’s why it’s important to bring 100% to anything we do. It’s important to show up in the work mindset.

The other side is: Your body is one of your tools and you need to take care of all your tools so you can do your job. Construction is high-pressure work, but because someone has planned poorly does not mean you have to risk your health.


By working with contractors and determining the stage of the project, union representatives visit job sites and develop job reports for union members to find future work. Think of it like the inside scoop of where to find work.

A rep reports that “xyz” contractor “crewing up” for their next phase of “xyz” task and needs 7-10 hands.

You can also find a list of work in your area via a Dispatch Report.

Understand your capabilities and ask questions if you are concerned about work conditions, especially unsafe ones. Also, check with your job site steward or call a rep if you think your safety is at risk.

One other thing: I know it’s difficult to unplug and focus on work because there’s so much other information that we have to stay up to date on. It’s important to be present when you’re doing a job. Be sure to have a clear distinction between using your technology for work and using your technology for the rest of your life.

During my nineteen years as a union carpenter, it’s been interesting to watch the adaptation of technology and how that translates in the workplace. Sometimes it’s useful and other times it’s counterproductive. It’s all about balance. Just like everything else in our lives.

Additional training is available at no cost to our apprentices even after they journey out. Ready to up your skills? Check out what training is available at your training center:
Alaska Training Center
Northwest Carpenters Institute
Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute
Montana Training Center

Did You Know?

UBC emblem and motto.

The official emblem of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America was adopted at the Fourth General Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, August 1884. The motto inscribed therein, “Labor Omnia Vincit,” translated from Latin means “Labor Conquers All Things.” Learn More


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