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April 2013

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Topping Out: Tools in One Hand and a
Degree in the Other

In 2008, Amy Krug had no savings, no retirement and no patience left. A bartender, she was looking for a change but uncertain about what to do next.

"I had planned to go to college after high school, but did some crazy things and started working in a bar," Krug said. "If you did it for 23 years, you'd leave too."

Her new husband, Jeff Krug, was a journeyman inside wireman with 18 years on the job and, like Amy Krug's mother, a member of Pittsburgh
Local 5.

"He told me in five years I would have a good salary, retirement and something to look forward to," Krug said. "And I would have my college degree too. That was a big deal to me."

Krug is now a fourth-year apprentice, working during the day and going to classes three nights a week. Like every other Local 5 apprentice, alongside courses in electrical construction, Krug takes college courses in communications, psychology and English taught at the training center by professors from the nearby Allegheny Community College.

For more than 20 years, every apprentice in Local 5 has been required to pass enough college courses to qualify for an associate degree in construction technology by the time they graduate.

"When you get your journeyman ticket, you also get a college degree," said Paul Reinert, training director for Local 5.

Like Local 5, Joliet, Ill., Local 176, Steubenville, Ohio, Local 246 and several Indiana locals require their apprentices to pass enough college level classes to qualify for a college degree. This fall, those ranks are growing.

New apprentices in Paterson, N.J., Local 102 will be enrolled in Union County College and will have to pass college as well as their training classes. There is no charge for the degree.

Nearly 40 percent of apprenticeship programs have an agreement with a nearby community college that awards credit for completion, said Steve Anderson, a director at the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, but requiring a degree to graduate from an apprenticeship program is still unusual.

An Academic Boost to a Solid Program

NJATC Executive Director Mike Callanan says the program run jointly by the IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association is already the most comprehensive electrical apprenticeship program in the world, requiring 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and, on average, over 1,000 hours of classroom instruction.

"This is a rigorous education. These guys are working hard. They go to school at night and study for five years," Callanan said. "It is a clear pathway to the middle class and a great opportunity to combine a craft with skills that cannot be taken away. They provide an incredible asset to the economy and the country."

Construction and Maintenance Department Director Jerry Westerholm said the program for inside and outside electricians "teaches everything they need to know to be ready on their first day."

More than Just Marketing

When Bernie Corrigan became training director at Local 102, his top priority was improving the credentials of the local.

"Our workers are highly educated. I consider this part of continuing to approach ourselves as a business," Corrigan said. "Being able to say, 'You think you know what a construction worker is? All our guys have college degrees,' was part of a marketing strategy."

Corrigan and Business Manager Patrick Delle Cava decided that more college degrees in the membership would win more customers and organize more nonunion electricians.

Steubenville, Ohio, Local 246 Training Director Tony Shreve is expecting a new class of 11 apprentices this fall. Everyone is expected to graduate with an associate degree in electrical construction from Eastern Gateway Community College. Shreve made college mandatory more than a decade ago and says the best argument for the program is the results.

"We have 88 percent of our industrial market, 60 to 70 percent of commercial and 50 percent or better of residential. Those are National Labor-Management Cooperation Committee numbers, not ours," Shreve said. "I attribute a lot of that to the apprenticeship program. It makes it very easy to sell us."

A Difference of Degree

Damean Hilty, a member of Local 5, continued in school after his apprenticeship ended in 2005, and in 2008 he earned his MBA.

"Nonunion guys talk about the union all the time, mostly that you got paid more," said Hilty, who started out nonunion. "Then I saw that it was a great deal more than earning more money. I knew if I got into the local, not only would I be able to make significantly more money, I would also have a chance to go to college."

After getting his journeyman ticket, Hilty, who said he always wanted to go to college, worked during the day and studied at night. Hilty says he sees the difference the classes make, especially psychology and communication.

"Education helps you open up to something new," Hilty said. "The job site works better when we are all receptive to new ideas."

Corrigan says education was never a hard sell at the local. "It's what has always been the hallmark of the IBEW. We always argue that we have the best. This is about giving our members and our customers more."

An expanded version of this story can be found online at


Apprentices at work in the Paterson, N.J., Local 102 training center

Photo credit: Bernie Corrigan