IBEW local unions know they need to grow quickly with the massive surge in infrastructure projects across North America. Part of that means extending their reach to historically underrepresented groups in the electrical trade.
Chicago Local 134 has a successful template for that.
Through the Powering Chicago partnership, Local 134 and the Electrical Contractors' Association of Chicago and Cook County reach into area high schools, community colleges and local groups to share the benefits of being part of the IBEW.
"These relationships have helped identify talent and create opportunities for women, African Americans, Latinos, LBGTQ people and more," Powering Chicago Executive Director Elbert Walters III said. "And we're all stronger for it."
One example can be seen at Chicago's Simeon Career Academy, a vocational high school. A Local 134 member works closely with Simeon and establishes programming that shows the predominantly Black student population what the local offers, Walters said. Contractors and members visit the school to share insights from their experience, and even perform mock interviews to help students hone their skills for the apprenticeship process.
|Powering Chicago's "mobile field trip" truck takes the trade on the road to events and neighborhoods in the Chicago area.
"This relationship has produced jobs within the contracting space as interns and also inspired a number of students to enter our apprenticeship program," Walters said.
Local 134 is plugged into Chicago's various resources, like its city-wide career technical education program, Chicago Builds, which provides high school juniors and seniors the chance to learn about the skilled trades. For its part, Local 134 provides instructors who prepare the students on what to expect in a career in the electrical industry.
Another program that Local 134 works with is Chicago Women in Trades, which offers training and other resources to prepare women for a career in the industry. Local 134 members, like IBEW NECA Technical Institute Director Gene Kent, have hosted groups at the local's training center to show what a day in the life of an apprentice is like.
"CWIT is one of my favorite third-party organizations," Kent said. "They do the best job of preparing women for the trades, and the applicants we get from them are phenomenal. They're always successful."
What makes these programs work, Walters said, is the purpose that drives them.
"The intent is to provide access to the best and brightest talent around and encourage them to take part in our industry," said Walters, who is a 24-year member of Local 134. "It's to provide a pathway by reaching out to all communities and have members who are representative of those communities be the advocates for our industry. In short, it has been successful because the industry has been intent on making a difference."
Spreading the Wealth Statewide
Local 134 isn't just diversifying its own workforce. It's also partnered with the other inside construction locals in Illinois to share resources, creating the Illinois IBEW Renewable Energy Fund.
The REF came about from the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act, state legislation that IBEW members lobbied hard for. That law is spurring major investments in renewable energy, including job training. Through grants provided under the FEJA, any local that's interested has been able to get training in solar installation and other opportunities.
The REF also provides that training to high schools and other groups through pre-apprenticeships and a two-week summer program.
"With this funding, we've been able to provide valuable, hands-on learning to people all throughout the state," Local 134 Business Representative Robert Hattier said. "And we're seeing the results, with students from these programs entering our apprenticeship."
Hattier said REF has trained more than 2,000 people with the money from its first grant.
Another benefit of these programs is that those apprentices can now talk to the new students coming in.
"It really helps to hear from someone who's from your own neighborhood or school," Hattier said.
Having people who look like the prospective students or come from similar backgrounds is an invaluable component, Hattier, Kent and Walters all said.
"The instructors at our apprenticeship facility consist of members from underrepresented groups. And as an industry, having these groups represented throughout makes it that much easier to speak with credibility," Walters said.
Hattier said Local 134 has even seen benefits from the parents' nights it puts on before the students graduate.
"It's important to engage the family," he said. "And sometimes the parents themselves will say they're interested in learning the trade."
For students at schools who can't make it to the training center, Powering Chicago can come to them with its "mobile field trip" truck. The 73-foot semitrailer is outfitted with current and emerging technology, including EV charging infrastructure. Initially purchased as a marketing tool, it now contains a replica of a corner of a residential home that demonstrates how distribution works. At other stations, students can try their hand at tasks like bending conduit and pulling wire.
"At first, we were using it just to showcase the local, like a billboard and something to use in parades," Kent said. "Then we realized it could be used as a traveling road show, and we could do hands-on events. It's gotten a good response so far."
Walters attributed much of Powering Chicago's achievements to support from leaders like Don Finn, Local 134's business manager and an International Executive Council member.
"The biggest reason we've done so well is because of forward-thinking leadership, which has empowered us to grow and try out new ideas, resulting in the diverse staff and innovative programming we have today," Walters said.
There is still a lot of work to do, Kent said, but the team is up for the challenge.
"Even in a union town like Chicago, there are a lot of people that don't know about us, so we've got to keep reaching out, especially to the decision-makers like principals and leaders of community organizations," Kent said. "Because when we show them what we can do, and what we earn, it awakens them to the great opportunities that the IBEW offers."