September 2010

American Indian Pre-Apprenticeship Program Prepares for Work Spike
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On most of America's Indian reservations, national percentages measuring economic anguish or progress hold scant meaning. Times have always been tough and have only gotten worse during the most recent recession, with nearly half of the work-age members in some parts of Indian Country jobless.

With $400 billion of dollars of potential construction and significant energy development foreseen on 55 million acres of reservation lands—coupled with significant federal stimulus dollars coming in—the question is: Who will do the work?

Will fly-by-night contractors devour federal tax dollars leaving no skilled workers behind, or will new projects bring fresh opportunities to build a wider base of skilled union construction hands and contractors in Indian Country?

A recently-concluded six-week, intensive pre-apprenticeship program for 24 Native American Indians at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., holds the promise of building an indigenous, growing work force of IBEW electricians on reservations and in nearby towns from New York to Oklahoma to California. IBEW's Dakotas JATC provided opportunities for hands-on electrical work, supplementing classroom time.

The program was sponsored by the IBEW, the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, the National Electrical Contractors Association and the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development.

The parties agreed to house, educate and identify job opportunities for successful graduates and to address the need for qualified skilled workers on and off the reservations. All direct costs of the program are covered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Classes, taught by IBEW instructors, began on June 14 and concluded on July 30. All applicants were age 18 or over and were high school graduates or GED-certified. All were administered drug tests, physical and background checks and agreed to relocate, if necessary, for training after completing their classes.

"It's the greatest opportunity I have had in years," says David Carroll, 30, who spent evenings during school sessions collaborating with his fellow students. Carroll, a Choctaw from Tahlequah, Okla., has managed warehouses, built computers and worked as a welder, but he has seen work dry up and his skills devalued. "In today's economy, without training, you can make more at a convenience store than welding," he says.

In a letter to IBEW business managers and NECA chapter managers, International President Edwin D. Hill and NECA CEO John Grau urge JATCs to sponsor graduates of the program. "Most of [the $400 billion] projects require that a minimum percentage of Native American Indians be represented in the work force makeup," they said. "The pre-apprenticeship program will hopefully be the first of many efforts to demonstrate our commitment to the Native American Indian population and our willingness to ensure that they benefit directly from this construction investment."

The U.S. Department of Labor has agreed to permit the direct entry graduates who have completed 240 hours of government-funded preliminary training into JATCs.

Even though high unemployment persists on many reservations, Lynn Forcia, who heads up the Bureau of Indian Affairs' division of work force development, says: "They still have to import labor because they don't have skilled workers on site."

Forcia, who grew up on the Keweenaw Bay Reservation in Northern Michigan, knows the value of union training and collective bargaining. The daughter of a USW iron ore miner, she says, if someone on the reservation is working a minimum-wage job and their car breaks down, they end up coming to the Bureau's social service office. Devoting federal dollars to gainful employment would be a much better choice. Native Americans, she says, "need opportunities to move beyond being the source of low-pay and low-skill jobs."

In charge of how federal stimulus funds are awarded at the BIA, Forcia sees progress when unions, the bureau and tribal colleges link resources. "Stimulus monies have worked in Indian country," says Forcia. From energy auditors to brick masons and electricians, jobs are opening up.

Barbara Schmitt, director of economic development at the Tribal Community College who helped administer a prior 18-week program for energy auditors with the Plumbers and Pipefitters, says, "We had a great bunch of students in the electrical program."

Before classes began, students attended three days of orientation and life skills training and were free to use all facilities at the college that offers mostly two-year programs for 72 different tribes.

Bowling, swimming and attending a July 4 rodeo together on campus helped pre-apprentices became a tighter group, leading to success as they mentored each other in study groups at night. "We're hoping that students go back home and spread the word about the program," says Schmitt, who has two brothers-in-law in the IBEW.

Bob Wolf, director of the Dakotas Electrical JATC, says, "The tribal program gives IBEW and NECA an opportunity to open up work that has never been ours, while giving Indian workers a skill to make sure that we have a good, trained work force for future projects." After learning about safety codes, DC theory and pipe bending, says Wolf, participants "have the skills to hit the ground running."

Benefits could broadcast widely with increasing numbers of employed and skilled workers in Indian Country. In testimony before the U.S. Senate's Committee on Indian Affairs, the National Congress of American Indians cites the example of a stimulus-funded elder housing project that employed tribal members on the Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi.

"Workers returned to the community filling churches, attending sports programs for their children and frequenting local businesses," says the NCAI.

A similar stimulus-funded elementary school construction project on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona provided more opportunities for tribal members, including parents of the school's students to work close to home. The school's superintendent expects test scores to improve because of improved parental involvement.

Kenneth Clark, right, talks with Jordan Goulet about a circuit.