Leaders at St. Louis Local 1, in an effort to ensure that the IBEW plays a big role in the booming growth of solar energy in their region, recently took on a leadership role in an innovative pilot program designed to help city leaders identify and recruit men and women into the electrical field.
Photo credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user Chris Yunker

Leaders at St. Louis Local 1 are doing their part to make sure the IBEW plays a big role in the booming growth of solar energy in their region. The local recently assumed a leadership role in an innovative pilot program designed to help city leaders identify and recruit men and women into the electrical field, especially those from often untapped communities.

“We’re doing a good job of keeping up with the demand for solar, and there’s no end of that demand in sight,” said Local 1 Business Manager Frank Jacobs. “This pilot has the potential to help us stay ahead for years to come and give more people the chance to get a solid, middle-class union job in this critical field.”

Initial work on implementing the city’s Solar Workforce Development Pilot began in 2019. The various restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, however, delayed the start of the city’s actual recruitment process until this past November.

“We have a good, longstanding relationship with the city,” Jacobs said. “They knew they could rely on the IBEW to be a willing and knowledgeable partner in their efforts.” A big advantage to the pilot, he said, is that it’s built using established, existing local resources, rather than trying to come up with something completely new.

The city is well acquainted with Local 1’s decades-long commitment to diversity. Its community outreach efforts extend into dozens of St. Louis-area high school career fairs each year, with an eye toward broadening electrical career opportunities for minorities by targeting students in school districts with large minority populations.

In recent years, anywhere from a quarter to nearly half of Local 1’s apprentices have been minorities, with the mentoring program at the local’s Electrical Industry Training Center helping to produce a more than 90% graduation rate.

For this workforce development pilot, an application process helps to narrow the list of recruits to no more than 20. After these men and women are selected, some of the other pilot partners, such as the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council’s Building Union Diversity program, will help ensure that they are prepared to handle the challenges of working in a professional environment. Other pilot partners will be charged with helping participants overcome some potential employment barriers, such as a lack of access to transportation, childcare and work clothes.

Once all of that has been sorted out, the IBEW component will kick in, with the journeymen wiremen of Local 1 spending a few days sharing some of their solar installation expertise, mixing desk-based learning with on-the-job work to give participants a taste of what a typical electrician might experience installing solar arrays. Trainers from Local 1 will then assess participants’ interest and help them determine whether an apprenticeship, and eventual solar installation work, is for them.

“We think a program like this could be really effective in getting information out to the public about good-paying jobs in the electrical industry,” said Dennis Gralike, director of apprenticeship at the Electrical Industry Training Center.

And there are plenty of jobs to be had, especially in the solar field. Major solar projects on their way to the St. Louis area include a joint venture recently announced between IBEW signatory contractor Aschinger Electric and Azimuth Energy that plans to focus on utility-scale and commercial solar projects. There’s also Ameren’s neighborhood solar program, which promises to bring installations to its customers who have space for solar panels, say, on their rooftops or in their parking lots.

“This is an innovative way for us to make strides with the city’s ambitious climate protection goals while advancing diversity and equity in the workforce at the same time,” said St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson of the program. “We’re fortunate to have strong community partners willing to join us in taking a leadership role in this endeavor.”

The pilot was developed by the St. Louis Office of Sustainability with support by a grant from the Energy Foundation through the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge. St. Louis is one of 25 cities selected to participate in the Challenge, an effort to help cities take action to reduce pollution that contributes to climate change and affects public health.

Being “all in” on renewable energy initiatives is nothing new for Local 1. Its training center’s pioneering Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program has been crucial in supporting the growing electric vehicle industry, and Dr. Linda Little, the assistant director of the training center, helped develop the EVITP for a national audience. The center’s own covered parking lot has been blanketed with photovoltaic cells for years.

One hoped-for outcome from the pilot, after its partners have assessed each step of the program, is a robust recruitment set-up that will help close some of the gaps that have existed traditionally between solar installation training from non-IBEW sources and the successful placement of knowledgeable trainees in solid, middle-class union jobs in the solar industry.

“We’re thrilled for the chance to bring our union’s solar classroom education and field instruction to this program,” Gralike said. “Training is among the many things the IBEW does best.”