July 2011

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For Las Vegas JATC Director, Passion Key to Success

When Madison Burnett was appointed assistant apprenticeship director in 2000, the 10 "labs" at the Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee of Southern Nevada were empty rooms.

So he asked the JATC trust committee for permission to solicit vendors and contractors for donations of equipment to turn the labs into hands-on learning centers. Today, the 25,000-square-foot training center contains labs on programmable logic controllers (PLCs), motor controls, voice-data-video, fire alarms, transformers, networking platform LonWorks, photovoltaics, wind generation and instrumentation.

"I looked around at what I lacked as an apprentice, where I could have used practical training to accompany theory," he said, recalling six-month stretches of running cable.

Now director of the JATC, Burnett has won far-reaching recognition coordinating the work of 32 instructors, members of Las Vegas Local 357 who mentor and teach one of the Brotherhood's most diverse student populations, including 400 apprentices, construction wiremen, construction electricians and journeymen seeking to upgrade their skills.

Al Harris, a six-term member of Local 357's executive board, said that humility is Burnett's greatest strength. Harris met Burnett in 1989, convinced him to apply to the apprenticeship and has been one of his strongest supporters since.

"It's a communication thing with Madison," says Harris, who said Burnett is an "everyday person" who never talks down to his peers or his students. Harris said he remembers Burnett going online to help a student with his homework on a Sunday morning, while attending a conference in Hawaii, and taking calls at midnight from apprentices facing personal challenges.

Early in his career, Burnett worked at the Nevada Test Site, the 1,360-square-mile expanse of desert and mountains where the U.S. Department of Energy had been conducting nuclear tests since the 1950s. As an electrical inspector, Burnett, then 26, met IBEW electricians for the first time. "They were craftsmen," he says.

Turning out in 1994, Burnett worked as a general foreman on the construction of the Monte Carlo Hotel casino, the Luxor and the celebrated Paris. In 1995, he was hired as an apprentice instructor.

Jose Delgado, a fourth-year apprentice, first met Burnett as a 16-year-old at the area's technical trade high school. Delgado says his mentors and the JATC, which donated electrical equipment to the high school, "changed my life and made me a better person and apprentice."

Burnett visits high schools, middle schools and even elementary classes to talk about careers in the trade. A former member of the board of directors of Build Nevada—an effort to assist future trade applicants obtain GEDs and master the math necessary to enter training programs—he also visits prisons and works with the College of Southern Nevada's re-entry program.

"I really push to educate the public and our community about what we do," said Burnett, an African American. "Naturally, that brings in more women and more ethnicities." The JATC's student population is 35 percent Hispanic and 25 percent African American. Ten percent of the students are women. Burnett partners with Jessie Walker, a longtime Local 357 activist, who works as a Build Nevada program administrator to enhance the local's outreach.

A nagging recession in construction, says Burnett, can make it difficult to balance tasks. "It's a challenge to still provide hands-on, quality training and not go in the hole because of budget problems caused by lower employer contributions," says Burnett.

When he interviews instructors, says Burnett, "I want members who are coming for more than a paycheck." He understands the challenge of teaching up to five hours after working a full day in the field. But, he says, "I want people who have a passion to share their knowledge." Of the JATC's faculty members, he adds, "each bring some uniqueness to the training" and he's always open to suggestions about new course offerings.

He recently returned from Chicago, where he previewed a curriculum to prepare electricians for developing and maintaining charging stations for electric vehicles. "We need to be proactive and not wait for the market to demand training," he says.

Burnett, says Harris, the executive board member, never forgets the key factor in his success and the main ingredient in a brighter future for his students. "He tells his students from day one that he is an IBEW member, first and foremost."

Madison Burnett, director of the Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee of Southern Nevada, says, "It's rewarding to see apprentices mature, learn the trade and make their rites of passage."