Oregon's union apprenticeships are outpacing their nonunion counterparts when it comes to diversity and inclusion, says a recent study.
“Diversity, in leadership and in the rank-and-file, makes us richer both in talent and in community," said Bridget Quinn, Portland, Ore., Local 48's workforce development coordinator. "Union programs encompass brother and sisterhood, a real looking-out for others. Nonunion programs lack that connection. They're more business-focused than people-focused."
The study, conducted by Larissa Petrucci through the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, found that union apprenticeship programs are more diverse than their nonunion counterparts and have higher success rates all around, especially for women and people of color.
In particular, Petrucci found that women and people of color are significantly more likely to complete their programs when it's a union apprenticeship as compared to a nonunion one. They are also more than twice as likely to enter a high-wage trade if they go through a union apprenticeship.
Construction is the third-fastest-growing industry in Oregon and the state's Employment Department is predicting 11,900 new construction jobs over the next decade, all while 17% of the workforce nears retirement, reported the Portland Business Journal. As such, recruitment to the trades is becoming increasingly vital.
"In order for the trades to continue to grow, we have to look outside of the typical groups that have been sought after to produce our workflow," said Local 48 Daytime Instructor and Outreach Coordinator Kennitha Wade.
Among Petrucci's findings is that more women and people of color have enrolled in apprenticeship programs over the last decade. In 2020, 11% of all newly enrolled apprentices were women, a 57% increase from 2011, and 31% of newly enrolled apprentices were people of color, a 55% increase from the same time period. And most of these groups were in union programs. In trades represented by both union and nonunion programs, unions graduated a significantly higher proportion of apprentices, boasting a graduation rate of 58% compared to 36% for the nonunion alternative.
One thing that Local 48 and other union apprenticeships do to help historically underrepresented groups is to offer support. This can take a variety of forms, from mentoring to interview preparation, and this extra attention can often be the difference between completing a program and not, Wade said.
"This trade can be brutal and when you feel like you do not belong on a job site, it's easy to believe what people tell you and leave. It's easy to want to escape the negative environment that sometimes exists on construction sites," Wade said. "With the union, there are support groups and spaces made available for people to talk to others they can identify with, where they can share experiences and get advice."
That support can come in the form of groups like the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus, RENEW/NextGen (the IBEW's young worker-focused group) and women's committees like Local 48's Sisters in Solidarity.
"Groups like the EWMC are essential," said Wade, who also serves as her chapter's president. "The EWMC sees the value in diversity and provides members a place to speak freely and get feedback without judgment. When people have that, they are more likely to share some of the hardships they face and get help from other members."
Local 48's diversity and inclusion efforts also include partnerships with area organizations like Oregon Tradeswomen and Girls Build Summer Camp, as well as with pre-apprenticeship programs.
"I think it's critical to have partnerships," said Sisters in Solidarity Chair Dolores Doyle. "We can't reach everyone. And groups like Oregon Tradeswomen do really good work. They always send us their best."
Local 48 also offers customized communication to all women and applicants of color at each stage of the application process, which includes resources and introductions to mentorship groups like the EWMC and Sisters in Solidarity.
"These groups are very important," Quinn said. "They play a key role in applicant mentorship as well as with retention."
Doyle, an inside electrician for 22 years, says that it's also important to have buy-in from both the union and the contractor side.
"It shouldn't be just one voice. It has to come from multiple sides," she said.
Quinn says that the solid relationship between Local 48 and its NECA chapter, which includes a jointly-run pre-apprenticeship program, has helped to develop a strong outreach program as well.
"There is a lot of willingness on both sides to try new things," Quinn said.
Doyle says that while major strides have been made, there's still a long way to go. For instance, Local 48 offers paid maternity leave and reimburses child care costs through a flex plan, but many women — who tend to bear a disproportionate amount of childcare duties — still have to get their kids to a childcare site that fits with their early work schedule.
"It's better than it was 20 years ago, but we're still living in a world where some women have to get their kids up at 3:30 a.m. to get them to day care by 6 a.m. so they can get to work on time. Most men don't have to deal with that."
Despite the obstacles that still need to be faced, Doyle and Wade both praised Local 48 for its efforts at recruitment and retention of historically underrepresented groups.
"This is a really great career for people," Doyle said. "The more we can do to help women and people of color be successful, the better it is for everyone, including the union. We want the IBEW to have as big an umbrella as possible."
Local 48's work in this area serves as an example of IBEW Strong, the international union's initiative to be more inclusive throughout its ranks and branches. IBEW Strong takes the objective of the union, to organize all electrical workers, and puts it into practice with its stated declaration of working toward human justice, rights and dignity. Across the U.S. and Canada, the IBEW is making strides to welcome all workers regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or other identity.
"The job that we all have is to make sure that anyone who wants to work in our field, no matter their background, knows that they have a home in the IBEW," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "It's how we grow to meet the demands of the new economy, and it only makes us stronger. Local 48 is a great example of how to do just that."