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August 2021

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North Carolina Apprenticeship Director
Wins Statewide Award

Rebecca Axford was not the obvious choice to run the Durham JATC. She didn't know much about electricity at first. Her husband, Rob, was an expert, a member of Local 553 and an instructor at the JATC, and he saw the possibility, and recommended her for the job when it opened in 2016.

She also wasn't an educator. She was, at the time, running a high-end relocation company that worked primarily with universities to move elaborate laboratories and operating rooms and the homes and offices of the professors who ran them.

"I wasn't sure why he thought I would be good for the job. I wasn't even looking for a job," Axford said.

Axford had seen the power of the apprenticeship program through Rob's success.

"He did all these amazing things: got his license. Ran work. Served the local. And then, freely gave his knowledge to the next generation of men and women. It is a great system," she said. "The work I was doing was important, but for a limited number of people. I knew at the JATC I could be a part of something so much bigger."

Her husband asked her to read the job description and then decide whether to pursue it or not.

"I realized I didn't need to be an electrician to be the training director. I needed to facilitate apprentices' learning processes and trust their ability," she said. "They didn't need another journeyman; they needed a principal."

So, she applied, a very non-traditional applicant with a very non-traditional message for a union training program in one of the lowest union-participation corners of the U.S.

Axford believed that apprenticeship in general was going to have its moment in the state. The underfunded primary education system was leaving many without the skills to fill open jobs. Many couldn't afford college, and the skills gap was growing and dragging the state's economy down.

"If we made apprenticeship more powerful in the state, of all kinds, union and nonunion, in all kinds of jobs and not just the trades, then our JATC would rise with it and so would labor unions," Axford said. "We are one choice among many. We are not trying to be the only choice; we just want to be able to take our piece of a larger success story."

That now-five-year-old effort to raise the profile and standing of apprenticeships in North Carolina, and the JATC specifically, has been recognized by the state-run apprenticeship body, ApprenticeshipNC, awarding Axford and her program the Special Recognition Award, the first time it has gone to a union.

"Because of her background with unions, she really understands what employers need, and has been a great ambassador,' said Andre Pettigrew, director of the Durham Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

"Getting the head of the Economic Development Council to say the word 'union' in a positive light?" said Tenth International Vice President Brent Hall. "It was nothing short of a miracle."

Hall said the award is the closest thing the state has to an apprenticeship program-of-the-year, but it is also recognition for Axford.

"Our program has nearly tripled in size since Rebecca took over and the diversity of our classes has dramatically widened," said Durham Local 553 Business Manager Rob Axford, Axford's husband, who was elected three years after Axford started at the JATC.

What she brought to the job, he said, was a deep commitment to the movement part of the labor movement and a business acumen and language honed in the corporate world.

For example, when Axford took over, like many JATCs, it operated out of what space could be carved from the local hall. That was fine, but growth was limited, as were the kinds of equipment they could use.

Today the JATC partners with Durham Tech, the local community college, using space at their campus and sharing some of the resource costs.

Axford has been invited or volunteered for some of the most high-profile workforce commissions, committees, and workgroups in the state, including the Durham Workforce Development Board, the Youth Council, the NC Community College Apprenticeship Council and Durham Public Schools' advisory board.

That won her the respect of some of the workforce development community where unions weren't seen as the enemy, she said. Rather, they weren't seen at all.

That needed to stop, and the turnaround began with the work she began with pre-apprenticeship programs that bring in historically underrepresented groups including women, veterans, young people and Black, Hispanic and Asian applicants.

In her award recognition, Axford chose to highlight the work she does with Hope Renovations, an innovative pre-apprenticeship non-profit that combines preparing women for careers in the trades by doing jobs that allow seniors to stay in their homes longer.

"I am just enamored with them. They are all about the right things: training the future and honoring our elders," Axford said. "I thought, 'Let's give them airtime. They need our support.'"

Axford said she understands that there were reasons why the IBEW has had some lack of diversity in its membership. It was in part due to a desire, especially in the South, to just hold on to what they had and not lose more.

"At first I was worried that promoting our JATC in a community that didn't seem to welcome organized workers would attract negative attention to our whole group. It has in the past," she said. "And so I know why word-of-mouth and referrals seemed like a safer way to grow, even if what we were actually doing is shrinking and becoming exclusive."

But, she says, the proof is there that times are different.

"The members are ultimately the deciders if we are doing this the right way. Our members have accepted and welcomed the pre-apprentices we bring in, and they deserve our gratitude and credit for making them our sisters and brothers," Axford said. "That they embrace the people I send out is huge. And they do. They take that young person or woman who has no previous electrical experience, and they embrace them and teach them."

Axford said as they open up our doors to new communities, the JATC will remain a powerful recruiting tool to the Durham IBEW, and the need for member involvement is critical.

"I know today's members want their family to have the same opportunity they did, their son or daughter or other loved ones, and we want those people. Any referral from a skilled trades worker means they have been well screened," she said. "But for every family member or friend you refer, my ask is, go out into your community and recommend five more to give us a call. Wear your IBEW shirt when you coach softball or volunteer. Be a proud member of your community and your IBEW. And speak up about what a union apprenticeship can do for them too."



Durham JATC Director Rebecca Axford receiving the ApprenticeshipNC Special Recognition Award, the highest honor the organization can give. It was the first time it has gone to a union.


Axford has been a high-profile advocate for expanding all kinds of apprenticeships in the state, including expanding the pool of applicants to the Durham JATC.