The Western Joint Electrical Training Society’s Workplace Alternative Trades Training program is making apprenticeships more accessible for people from traditionally underrepresented populations.

As job opportunities in the electrical and other building trades continue to expand throughout Canada, fears of a possible skilled-worker shortage continue to grow along with them. In British Columbia, for example, some estimates say that nearly 64,000 new tradespeople — including thousands of electrical workers — will be needed over the next 10 years.

To help capture this work for the IBEW, and also to help head off a potential crisis of electrical employment in that province, a longtime collaboration of Victoria Local 230Kamloops Local 993Nelson Local 1003 and the Electrical Contractors Association of British Columbia — collectively, the Western Joint Electrical Training Society — has developed an innovative program called Workplace Alternative Trades Training.

“We sat down with local contractors and talked about what’s necessary for new people to know about electrical work,” said Adrien Livingston, a member of Local 230 who serves as executive director of Western JETS, describing how the program was developed.

From those discussions emerged WATT, a free, three-week electrical pre-apprenticeship program that’s designed to further boost interest in the IBEW’s already successful pre-apprenticeship programs by “creating a low-barrier entry to the electrical trade,” Livingston said.

Funded in part by grants from the federal government’s Skilled Trades Awareness and Readiness Program, WATT specifically targets interested people who may have historically had difficulty in gaining access to Canada’s electrical foundations courses, either because of the expense or the time commitment required.

The program’s efforts are focused on increasing accessibility to the IBEW’s electrical apprenticeships for young people, especially women, along with persons from other traditionally underrepresented populations, such as people having disabilities and those from Indigenous and newcomer populations.

“We talk with each [applicant] in depth about what they’re getting into,” Livingston said.

Successful candidates are then provided, free of charge, with the basic tools of the trade plus other necessities such as steel-toe boots. Basic living expenses and transportation can be covered as needed, too.

“Graduates come out [of the program] with real, hands-on skills,” Livingston said, along with certifications in such basics as first aid, fall protection and electrical safety.

These successful participants are then recommended for a registered, IBEW-sponsored apprenticeship and are eligible for work placement with an IBEW signatory contractor. And the union’s connection doesn’t stop at the end of the three weeks: For a year afterward, with guidance from journeymen IBEW electricians and instructors, graduates have an opportunity to further develop the technical and academic skills they will need in electrical foundations programs. This ongoing mentorship and support helps graduates stay on track toward eventually becoming Red Seal-certified journeymen electrical workers themselves, with rewarding union jobs and benefits.

So far, the WATT program has been working well, Livingston said. Of the hundreds of young people who have been through the program since its 2019 inauguration, about 10% have come from Indigenous groups, 15% have been newcomers and 20% of participants have been women, he said.

Support networks have been especially crucial for women, Livingston said. Past WATT graduates often serve as mentors who help women students locate tools and workwear appropriate for them.

“Recruitment and retention are also extremely important,” Livingston said, noting that about 80% stick with the electrical trade as a career. Constant feedback from employers and communication with contractors helps to continuously improve the program, he said.

“The WATT program demonstrates the IBEW’s ongoing commitment to bringing greater equity, inclusion and diversity to electrical work,” said First District International Vice President Russ Shewchuk. “It’s helping us get the word out, in British Columbia and beyond, that the electrical trades are open to everyone.”

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