American Indian Pre-Apprenticeship Program Prepares for Work Spike
August 20, 2010
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.
David Carroll, 30, a Choctaw from Tahlequah,Okla.,has managed warehouses, built computers and worked as a welder, but has seen work dry up and his skills devalued. He spent evenings during school sessions collaborating with his fellow students. Carroll 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. They wrote:
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:
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:
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.
Son of IBEW Member: ‘This is my Second Chance’
Living as an artist and construction worker on the Isleta Pueblo, a reservation south of Albuquerque, N.M., Kenneth Clark was used to temporary periods without work. But when the residential housing market collapsed in 2008, Clark’s work as a tile-setter dried up.
A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, Clark needed a more reliable stream of income than the small return from his photography and prints hanging in local galleries. He had a maintenance job lined up at the reservation’s casino, but wanted something more.
On a visit to the Isleta tribal office, Clark, part Muskogee, Creek and Tlingit, saw a flier for a new Native American electrical pre-apprenticeship program kicking off in June in North Dakota. The son of a retired San Jose, Calif., Local 332 journeyman inside wireman, Clark, 44, had just two weeks to round up his college transcripts and other documents. He sucked up his fears about algebra, applied and was accepted.
In July, Clark, graduated from the pre-apprenticeship program. He says:
Skills for a Good Living
Christina Jimerson had performed dozens of jobs—from running chips to working in the smoke shop—during seven years of work in the Seneca’s Cattaraugus Indian Reservation casinos and bingo houses in Gowanda, N.Y. But she always took special interest watching technicians fix slot machines. She wished that she had the skills to join them.
Then, Jimerson saw an ad in the tribal newspaper for an electrical pre-apprenticeship program in North Dakota and said, “I figured I would give it a try.”
“I’m blessed that I was one of only 24 picked for the program,” says Jimerson, 33. Most of her fellow students had sacrificed like she had to get there, leaving children and families behind. But, Jimerson, whose grandfather was a union welder, says it was worth it. Adds Jimerson:
Grateful for a program that provided everything from tools, to work clothes, and—most of all—encouragement, Jimerson basks in the pride of her family and says: