A budding electrician had the hottest ticket in D.C. as President Joe Biden delivered a sweeping State of the Union speech that reported on record-breaking job growth and other unparalleled progress for American workers.
|Andrea Kelly, left, a pre-apprentice graduate and newly initiated member of Decatur, Ill., Local 146, attended President Biden’s State of the Union speech Feb. 8 as the guest of Illinois Rep. Nikki Budzinski, center, a strong supporter of union training programs. Earlier in the day, Kelly and Local 146 Business Manager Josh Sapp, right, made the rounds on Capitol Hill advocating for funding for pre-apprenticeship and apprentice programs.
Andrea Kelly, a newly initiated member of Decatur, Ill., Local 146 and graduate of the pre-apprenticeship program run by her city’s building trades, was among the youngest guests watching from the gallery of the packed U.S. House chamber the evening of Feb. 8.
“It was just very exciting to be there and hear him speak and to see all the congressmen and -women react,” said Kelly, 20, who was struck by the thunderous ovations, as well as less civil reactions, from the floor. “I liked that he’s good on job training and helping not just our program but every trade and all working people when and where he can.”
Kelly was invited by Illinois Rep. Nikki Budzinski, a pro-labor freshman lawmaker who has pledged that her first bill will seek tax incentives for small businesses that hire apprentice and pre-apprentice workers.
She signaled her commitment by giving her lone guest ticket to Kelly, who was selected by Local 146 Business Manager Josh Sapp.
“I’m excited to be joined by Andrea Kelly for my first State of the Union address — a young woman who shows us just how important apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs are to the economic mobility of our communities,” Budzinski said.
“At a time when too many Americans struggle to find good-paying jobs, thousands of well-paid positions lie unfilled due to a persistent job skills gap,” she added. “We must do more to connect folks with training opportunities that will help them get ahead.”
From the House podium, Biden saluted the IBEW, the Ironworkers and other trades — shoutouts that were nothing new for a president who talks about union apprenticeships and good, union jobs every chance he gets.
He heralded the 12 million jobs created during his administration’s first two years — more job gains than in any president’s full four-year term and a large factor in the nation’s 3.4% unemployment rate, the lowest in a half-century.
Millions more jobs are on the way, Biden said to cheers, made possible by the $1.3 trillion infrastructure bill and other legislation that is putting people to work building and improving everything from roads, bridges and tunnels to schools and airports. Not to mention explosive growth in U.S. computer chip manufacturing and high-tech rest stops.
|Guests in the balcony of the U.S. House chamber Feb. 8 included Decatur, Ill., Local 146 member Andrea Kelly, who watched President Biden report on explosive job growth and other life-changing progress for workers in his State of the Union address. Each of the 535 members of Congress are given one extra ticket to the annual speech; Kelly was the guest of Ill. Rep. Nikki Budzinski. Photo courtesy of The White House.
“We’re going to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, installed across the country by tens of thousands of IBEW workers,” Biden said in the address.
Each of the 535 members of Congress is allowed to invite a plus-one to the annual address. Kelly was surrounded in the gallery by members’ spouses and Washington insiders, but also guests like her representing a cross-section of Americans.
Her business manager didn’t have quite as good a seat. Sapp, who traveled with Kelly to Washington, laughed as he described attempting to watch the speech on his phone in a noisy Capitol Hill restaurant.
Sapp met Kelly during a career fair at her high school when she stopped by the IBEW’s booth. “She said she always wanted to be an electrician,” he said.
Or at least since she was 10 or 11, Kelly recalled, when she watched in fascination as technicians tackled a lighting problem at a glass manufacturing plant run by her grandfather.
“The lights kept tripping, and they were trying to figure out why,” she said. “It was pretty cool. They had to pull some wires out and seeing all those different-colored wires go here and there, seeing the workers flip that switch and the light goes off and this switch and the light goes on. It was like ‘Wow!’ I’d never seen that before, and I’d always wondered what would happen if I flipped the switch.”
Sapp steered her toward the Illinois Works Pre-Apprenticeship Program, a partnership of the Decatur Building & Construction Trades Council, Workforce Investment Solutions and local nonprofit One Level, that provides 120 hours of training, including on-the-job experience.
For Kelly, who had been working at McDonald’s, a stint with Bodine Electric turned into a life-changing job with the signatory contractor.
Kelly has applied for an IBEW apprenticeship and is anxiously awaiting interviews in March. But with a year under her belt as a construction wireman at Bodine, she’s already an IBEW sister, initiated into Local 146 on Valentine’s Day.
Growing up, she made trips to see an aunt in Washington but never had stepped inside the Capitol until the day of Biden’s address — a speech that won rave reviews, even earning praise from some of his critics.
Earlier that day, Kelly and Sapp visited with Budzinski and other members of the Illinois delegation, including Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and Reps. Sean Casten and Lauren Underwood. They even met with House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries and bumped into other politicians as they trekked the halls of House and Senate office buildings.
“She was introduced to dozens of people of importance,” Sapp said. “She recognized it as an awesome opportunity, but I think some of it was also overwhelming.”
He was proud of how she navigated it all, recalling her perfect response to an interviewer’s question.
“One of them asked her what she was hoping to hear from President Biden,” he said. “She answered it really well — she said funding for job training to help people like her get into the trades.”