For more than a century, the IBEW has been successful by adapting to changes in the electrical industry. Thunder Bay, Ontario, Local 402 Business Manager Glen Drewes is confident his local union has found an innovative way to build on that history.
Earlier this year, Local 402 received rare permission from the Ontario provincial government to add an apprenticeship program to train network cabling specialists, who are responsible for installing and maintaining computer-based electrical systems. Local officials hope to have the initial group of apprentices by late next year.
"This is a separate trade, much like being a power lineman," Drewes said. "You don't have to be an electrician to be a network cabling specialist."
Provincial governments have oversight over skilled construction apprenticeships in Canada, with vocational and technical colleges usually providing the training. Apprentices work toward the coveted Red Seal designation, which signifies they are highly trained to perform the work in their field.
Canadian unions — including the IBEW — can request adding an apprenticeship program only when colleges within their jurisdictions show no interest in teaching it. That's just what happened in and around Thunder Bay, a community of about 110,000 people on Lake Superior in western Ontario, when it came to network cabling specialist training. Community and technical colleges in the area had no plans to add it.
So, Drewes and others went to work with a goal of convincing the Ontario Ministry of Labour it could house a program at its 5-year-old training center.
After months of hard work, they got it.
"When something like this happens, it's a big deal," said National Electrical Trade Council Executive Director Melissa Young, who aided Local 402 with its application. "Only a handful of unions in the building trades in Canada have the status to deliver this. It just brings legitimacy to the fact that unions can deliver top-shelf training."
Drewes said some commercial construction in Local 402's jurisdiction already is moving to an ethernet cable system and away from the traditional electrical work installation. He suspects the ethernet system will be common in new home construction during the next decade.
He views it as an opportunity instead of a threat, saying the IBEW must make inroads into cable network installation before other unions do. Currently, there is little formal training for these workers — called network cabling specialists or electronic specialists — who install and perform the maintenance on these systems.
They are usually nonunion because of the shortage of professional training, Drewes said. Contractors often don't know where to turn for skilled employees.
But with a formal training program, those workers will be exposed to the benefits of being part of the IBEW, which should grow membership. That, in turn, should help the IBEW draw in more signatory contractors, who are desperate for a professional workforce, Drewes said.
"The customer wins," he said. "They see what we offer and now, it's not just a free-for-all. You're working with the trades and you're getting good, quality work."
Added Young: "This work is very technical. It requires an immense amount of skill. It's a spinoff of the electrical trade, but it's not the same thing as being an electrician. For some contractors, this is all the work they do."
There's another benefit, too. North of Thunder Bay, there is a large First Nation population. Drewes said Local 402 wants to attract members of its community to the new apprenticeship program.
"We have to open our doors," Drewes said. "Our Indigenous population is very loyal to unions. If we can get our foot in there and become partners, I think it will be IBEW all the way. The possibilities are endless."
First District International Vice President Thomas Reid applauded Drewes and all Local 402 members for "devising an innovative way to grow our membership, which is even more crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic."
"We're tremendously honoured the Ontario provincial government entrusted us with training workers in what is an increasingly important field. It's great news for all the communities within 402's jurisdiction and we're going to meet the challenge. We hope similar opportunities present themselves across Canada in the future."
Young said it wasn't an easy process to convince government officials to allow Local 402 to open the training program, noting the labour ministry denied its first application.
That turned into a good thing. It made the subsequent application even stronger, she said.
"[Local 402] is very serious about this as an occupation," she said. "They've made a lot of investments in this, knowing it's for the members at the end of the day. It's about bringing new people in and making sure they can go to work for their employers."
Hamilton Local 105 and Toronto Local 353 also received previous permission from the provincial government to train network cabling specialists. Local 402’s program expands the IBEW’s reach in the field much deeper into the province’s interior.