Chicago Local 134 hosted a Math/Science Educator Day for local high school teachers in April.

Identifying and encouraging high school students who might benefit from a career in the electrical trades is the aim of a new partnership between Chicago Local 134 and a school district in the city’s northwestern suburbs.

“More and more young women and men are coming around to the realization that going to college is only one path of many available to them after graduation,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “A lot of them might be interested in the electrical field, and this arrangement in Illinois could help them learn how to turn that interest into a rewarding, family-supporting career.”

The recently announced partnership came about after months of meetings between Gene Kent, director of Local 134’s IBEW-NECA Technical Institute, and Melissa Damewood, a teacher at Park Ridge’s Maine East High School, part of Maine Township High School District 207.

“We’d already been looking into working with schools when Melissa got in touch with us,” Kent said.

Like a lot of people, Damewood had not considered that entering the electrical field could be a practical post-high school opportunity. “Students needed more exposure to the trades,” she said. “And too many times, ‘No Child Left Behind’ translated into, ‘If you didn’t go to college, you were left behind,’ which isn’t true.”

Local 134 Business Manager Donald Finn said many of the district’s students might never have learned about the IBEW without this partnership, which makes it a valuable component of his local’s larger outreach strategy.

“What we’re trying to do is get aggressive about changing the way we’re looked at,” Finn said. “We want the average person on the street to know what we do, and that we’re not just about pulling wire, we’re all over the board — in government, manufacturing and more.”

Finn noted that more than half of Local 134’s apprentices racked up debt on college degrees when they perhaps could have saved that time and money had they known about opportunities in the trades earlier. “That’s not to knock college, but it’s not for everyone,” he said.

Kent said that he and his team at the institute worked closely with Damewood to come up with a comprehensive plan. “We made an agreement that some of the classes that are geared toward the electrical industry could be worth points toward the apprenticeship entrance exam,” he said.

Under the program, which starts officially this fall, students will be able to earn credit toward an IBEW apprenticeship test — should they choose to take one — as long as they earn at least a C in selected math, science and technical courses at the district’s three high schools.

Of course, students would still have to pass aptitude and other tests before they could be considered for an apprenticeship.

Finn estimates that his local receives around 2,000 to 3,000 applications a year for anywhere from 200 to 250 open slots, a number that varies with available work forecasts. The District 207 partnership program could help its students gain a bit of an advantage in the process.

Damewood said that this new partnership with the IBEW is part of a larger, growing initiative that she’s leading in her school district, geared toward providing students with career options and choices by matching their interests with available opportunities.

The connection with the IBEW is among nearly 600 the district has made over the last several years to help students gain authentic career experiences through internships, shadowing and mentoring.

“Many of our kids can’t afford college because tuitions have quadrupled over the last 25 years,” Damewood said.

Finn noted that emphasizing the rising cost of a college education — and the staggering personal debt that often results — can be an effective selling point when describing the IBEW to young people.

“When you come out of our program, not only are you debt-free, you could be making six figures,” he said.

To further promote the partnership, the institute hosted in April a Math/Science Educator Day, giving many of District 207’s teachers a chance to experience the training facility firsthand and to get a look at how the institute’s apprenticeship and continuing education programs work.

“It was a huge hit,” Damewood said. “The teachers walked away in shock and awe at what was presented. Four even wanted to get students on board right away, before the end of the school year.”

The program enjoys the full support of the school district’s leaders, she said, and Damewood called the IBEW’s backing “phenomenal.” “Gene couldn’t be more supportive,” she said.

The Local 134 program isn’t the only one of its kind. Many locals across the IBEW are working with local school districts to boost interest in apprenticeships and careers in the trade.

At the international level, the new Interim Credentials Program being developed jointly by the IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association offers similar benefits. That program allows high school and college students, along with active-duty military personnel, to complete online courses required of all first-year IBEW apprentices before they officially start apprenticeships.

“Those online courses are credited once they enroll in a full apprenticeship program, so they can turn out earlier,” Stephenson said. “It’s exciting to see programs like these working to find new ways to track young people into the trades.”