For generations, linemen rodeos have brought together union members from far-flung cities and towns into their own unique version of an Olympic village, combining camaraderie and good times with full-bore competition in the skills of the trade.
The rodeos are well-publicized happenings. But, far more quietly, for more than half a century, the IBEW and signatory employers in the Seventh District have hosted their own kind of competition for inside apprentices, a tradition that has helped bolster training throughout the region.
Initiated in 1962 by John Jenner, a Witchita, Kan., electrical contractor, the contest began with one contestant from each state in the district, comprising Texas, Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
In the early 90s, it was expanded to allow the outstanding graduate from every JATC in the district to compete. Contestants attending average about 17 out of the 25 registered programs.
One management and one union representative from each state help design the contest and keep it up to date.
“The competition is powerful to us. It’s a way to get together and experience the joy of sharing experiences between employers, training directors and business managers, and see our students competing to be the best of the best,” says Danny Prosperie, Beaumont, Texas, Local 479 Electrical Training Alliance director.
The eight-hour match, held each spring, combines a written test of electrical theory and codes with practical tasks. Contestants must solve problems covering complex motor controls and hook up three-phase and buck-boost transformers.
Contest winners are invited to the district’s progress meeting where they receive a plaque and an engraved IBEW watch. The National Electrical Contractors Association presents each yearly winner with $300.
Jonathan Miller, then a fifth-year Local 479 apprentice and the local union’s apprentice of the year, was the 2014 contest winner. “Winning the contest was a huge boost,” he says. Miller, who attended college for two years before entering training, says, “I think my winning helped change the attitudes of some of the journeymen toward me and other apprentices.”
About six years ago, the parties decided that the winner’s presentation would be an excellent opportunity for a day-long meeting with IBEW leaders and NECA contractors to sharpen up training, says Seventh District International Representative Gary Buresh. The meetings have expanded to include 45 to 50 participants.
Prosperie says Miller’s win was “the deciding factor” in hiring him as an apprentice instructor. Miller is now teaching first and second-year classes, and using the most modern computer-based instruction tools. He says he jumped at the chance to be an instructor.
“Working as a journeyman on a service truck I can only impact one apprentice at a time. By teaching a class, I can help 30 students pick up skills and learn how to be a good worker,” he says.
Austin Local 520’s Ben Brenneman, the 2012 winner, is also an apprentice instructor. “That tells you all you need to know about the contest,” says Buresh. “It’s taken on a life of its own.”
Buresh credits San Antonio, Texas, Local 60 for donations to keep the contest running as well as the Electrical Training Alliance of Houston Local 716 for their financial contributions and the use of apprentices to build the equipment used in the contest.