Apprenticeship Programs Combine Skills Training, College Education
March 2002 IBEW Journal
Students at Pittsburgh's Local 5 learn in the training center's atrium, facing the telecommunications command center and switchgear on the right side.
After a five-year apprenticeship to master todays increasingly complex electrical systems, there is less difference between the journeyman electrician certificate and the college degreeso why not have both? The marriage of the tool belt and the mortarboard represents a vital link between education and the rapidly advancing technology of electrical construction.
"It isnt just running power wire and turning on a lamp anymore," said second-year apprentice Tim Kurhansky, 25, who attends the new Local 5 training center in Pittsburgh.
In the past 10 years, training directors have recognized that in the skilled trades, a college degree gives workers a better chance of upward career mobility, producing classes of new IBEW workers who are more marketable for the IBEW to contractors seeking workers with the best skills.
"Youre going to have to have people that are working smarter than we have in the past," said A.J. Pearson, executive director of the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee. "Technology is changing and we can master the skills."
The appeal of combining the certificate with the degree shows up in a wide range of IBEW classes, from Local 5 in Pittsburgh to Local 481 in Indianapolis and Local 46 in Washington state, and these are only a few of the many programs moving in such a direction.
In 1992, Local 481, in Indianapolis, Indiana, changed its apprenticeship requirements to include mandatory classes in technical writing, interpersonal communications and the history of organized labor. At first, apprentices grumbled about taking college courses along with their required classes, said Training Director Ron Christ. But that quickly changed.
"They said, This is why Im here, because I didnt want to go to college," Christ said. "Because the material they use in those classes always relates to construction, they overwhelmingly like it and a lot of them go on to get their bachelors degree after they graduate from the apprenticeship."
Even those journeyman electricians who graduated long before 1992 are going back to school to pick up a degree, Christ said. But that is only after a common hesitation that prevents many journeyman-level electricians from continuing their education.
"Most of the people in the trade think the idea of going back to school ranks up there with getting teeth pulled," said Steve Anderson, NJATC director of college degree programs. "Once they realize its not that hard and they can succeed, they keep coming back again and again. They just keep pushing themselves."
With so many IBEW training programs associating with community colleges, a recent NJATC newsletter put out a call for information to compile a comprehensive national database.
Pearson said the NJATC will soon be offering voluntary online courses for members to pursue an associates degree from Pellissippi State Technical Community College in a fully accredited program with credits transferable to a four-year university for a degree in construction management (see sidebar). Apprenticeship program requirements vary but most students seeking a two-year college degree have to take between three and eight additional general education courses.
Contractors in Indianapolis are increasingly being asked to provide resumes of workers for potential projects, said Christ of Local 481. With the local turning out up to 150 graduates a year with college degrees, the quality of their employees is a major selling point.
"People in the business community dont know anything about trade schools but they do know something about college," Christ said. "If we can show 30 percent of our work force is college graduates doing work in their facility, thats saying a lot."
Individually, a college degree implies a higher level of understanding of a projects scope and could mean the difference between a lower-paying job and that of project manager or superintendent. "We want to make sure its IBEW people filling those positions," Pearson said.
And for those who have taken an extra step and received a degree, its value is priceless.
"The self-esteem of a person once theyve attained a college degree goes up dramatically," Anderson said.
After committing five years to training and education, it is appropriate to recognize the students accomplishment with more than a NJATC certificate. "Theyre getting so much education, why shouldnt they have college credit?" said Local 176 Training Director Louis Piskur in Joliet, Illinois.
A mandatory degree program at the new Local 5 training school has students competing for entry. The training center, which opened on Labor Day in 2000, has helped raise Local 5s profile. It boasts open ceilings, Plexiglas see-though walls exposing conduit and wire assemblies and even the transparent workings of the buildings elevator.
"We wanted it to be an eye-catcher right off the bat," said Local 5 Training Director Robert Gieder. "We left drywall off the wall so people can actually see what would be behind constructed walls. If people want to know why the industry needs skilled people, this building tells the whole story."
The training facility itself is 40,000 square feet, with 16 classrooms, a library and physics, computer and telecommunications labs, and even dirt pits for pipe-bending. The $20 million complex had a $4.5 million training budget last year, said Local 5 Business Manager John Chalovich.
Part of a 127,000-square-foot, three-building campus that includes the Local 5 meeting hall and executive offices and a National Electrical Contractors Association branch, the center is a proud testament to the skills and professionalism of local workers. It is an important stop on the citys tours to businesses considering locating in Pittsburgh, Chalovich said. And the site draws others too. Presidential candidate Al Gore stopped by for a rally during the 2000 campaign.
Local 5 has also attracted international admirersa large delegation from England recently visited and plans to duplicate the program in Birmingham. The 18-member group that spent several days in Pittsburgh included union representatives, educators and investors. They studied Local 5s partnership with Community College of Allegheny County to determine how to duplicate the program and explored the possibility of establishing a student exchange program.
"We believe this is the best training facility in the world, in terms of the way curriculum is delivered through state-of-the-art teaching and learning methods," said Tony Henry, deputy chief executive officer of City College of Birmingham, England. "We are most impressed with the facilitys amenities and how the JATC deals with the psychology of the trade to deliver business sense to these students. Thats something we dont do in the U.K."
Local 481 opened a new training center in January. Like Local 5, the Indianapolis facility has several labs and glass walls exposing wiring in the main entrance. It also has two IBEW trademark lightning bolts on the roof that dramatically light the sky at night.
A continuing challenge for many apprenticeship programs is encouraging greater diversity in the student body. In Renton, Washington, the Local 46 apprentices include about 10 percent women, many of whom are recruited from Renton Technical College and a program called ANEW (Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Employment for Women).
"We have students who have retired from the military, school teacherswe even had a midwife go through the training and become an electrician," said Training Director Bill Bowser, who recently opened a new 66,000 square foot training facility.
Continuing education for working journeymen electricians is key to the goals of the IBEW and its partnership with the National Electrical Contractors Association.
"You look at the way the electrical industry has progressed and the days of going through apprenticeship and never going back to school again, thats gone," Christ said.