Trade Unions: A Different Way of Equipping the Workforce

They provide an important role in training workers for good-paying, and increasingly high-tech, jobs across our region. Take a closer look at the ways two local unions prepare people for a career that doesn’t require a college degree.

Take a close look at the buildings around you – not just your home but the nearby shopping center, the BMO Harris Bank Center, the Coronado Performing Arts Center, Chicago Rockford International Airport, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Rockford Riverfront hotel, and even the road outside. What do these structures have in common? Trade unions were integral to their construction. 

“If it’s a building, we work in it,” says Greg Harle, training coordinator at Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 23. “Any modern society has plumbing systems and pipes inside.”

At one level, the trade union exists to ensure everyone gets a fair wage and benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan. But as a coordinator of labor, these trade unions provide a critical role not only in employing people but in equipping our local workforce with critical job skills. For many, it’s an opportunity to earn a decent living, advance one’s career and receive an advanced education without having to attend college.

“Our guys and gals go through the program, and when they come out the other side they’re ready to rock and roll,” says Chris Molander, business agent at IBEW Local 364. “They’re very well-educated people and can go get the job done.”

Training through Apprenticeships

Someone who’s interested in becoming a plumber, pipefitter or indoor climate control specialist typically starts out at Local 23’s apprenticeship program. Its five-year apprenticeships in plumbing, pipefitting, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning include 1,700 hours of on-the-job training and 250 hours of classroom-related instruction every year for five years. 

“We have people all over northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin who apply within our program,” Harle says. “It’s a great option for post-secondary high school education.”

Apprentices attend school six weeks a year and complete 40-hour blocks of training six times a year, Harle explains. Participants receive a raise following the completion of the first year, and their wage increases after each subsequent advancement. 

“A first-year apprentice starts out at more than $20 an hour. They move on to be a second-year apprentice the following year and get another wage advancement,” says Harle. “A second-year apprentice makes $25.23 an hour. This means you could be 18, 19 or 20 years old and make $25 an hour, which is more than $50,000 a year. That’s just the money on the check because there’s also a benefit package.”

Fifth-year apprentices can earn more than $40 an hour and more than $80,000 annually. 

“It’s one of the highest entry-level jobs that you could possibly find in building construction trades, apprenticeship programs and specifically the piping industry,” Harle says.

Plumbers and pipefitters can ply their trades in many places, and their work can be seen inside many of the Rockford area’s best-known landmarks.

Over the years, Local 23 has handled the plumbing and piping systems at ice rinks, grocery stores, hospitals, the BMO Harris Bank Center and the Coronado Performing Arts Center, to name a few locations.

Classroom instruction is held at Local 23’s vocational training center, where the union spends about $2 million a year educating its apprentices. Classes focus on subjects such as trigonometry, pipefitting tubing, the basics of refrigeration and geothermal installations.

Harle spends a lot of time recruiting at local high schools. He thinks it’s important that students know about employment opportunities outside a typical college track – because there are other ways to earn a good living.

“I went to college after I was an apprentice, and I paid cash for college,” he says. “Having an apprenticeship is a pathway. The message I’m trying to send is that the apprenticeship pathway is equal to, if not better than, most baccalaureate degrees.”

As he speaks to students, Harle describes the settings and nature of work in which Local 23 operates. He’s also quick to advise on the importance of science and math classes. Lately, he’s also expanding who he speaks with.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of females or minority representation, because a lot of our applicants come from rural areas,” says Harle.

In the past six years, about seven women have gone through the apprenticeship program – and Harle says that’s a big step. In part, he adds, fewer women go through the program because men have always gravitated more heavily to this type of work.

To apply for the program, apprentices must be 18 by the time of their first interview. Applicants are given an aptitude test by a third party, and if they pass, they’ll fill out a personal experience form with questions like: What kind of training and education did you have in high school? What did you do after high school? What kind of activities are you involved in? Applicants who reach a certain score are then given a rank, based on their overall performance.

Local 23, in Rockford, invests about $2 million a year training its apprentices for successful careers with the building trades.

Harle has seen a number of successes throughout his two decades at Local 23. He’s seen hires become supervisors of labor pools of other apprentices. One apprentice recently won the International Welding Competition.

As for Harle, he joined Local 23 in 1998 and was married the next year. His wife hasn’t worked since their first child was born in 2001. 

“Our success is we are providing people with a career that’s been able to help them,” says Harle. “Right now, with COVID-19, everything is working a little bit slow but we’re training our future apprentices for when the country recovers from this current situation.”

Staying at the Forefront

The rise of technology has opened new frontiers for professional electricians. Keeping these highly trained workers on the cutting edge of their field is a major priority for IBEW Local 364, in Rockford.

“Training in the electrical industry is an evolution,” says Molander. “Over the years, the technology advances at a breakneck pace and the electrical industry has to keep up. Those technologies have to always be integrated into the apprenticeship program. When those technologies are out there in the real world, we have to be able to service them, work on them and install them. That’s one of the largest challenges we face.”

So, union members are doing their part to keep their industry in the minds of the next generation. Each year, IBEW Local 364 joins with other area trade unions for a career fair targeting middle and high school students. It’s a chance for the unions – including pipefitters, glazers and electricians – to promote their career paths.

Electrician apprentices with IBEW Local 364 spend years learning on the job as they experience the many places where electricity is at work – and it’s a growing list in this era of high-tech tools.

“A lot of the kids will come four or five years in a row, so by the time they’re juniors or seniors in high school, we’ll present a hands-on training session that shows them each of the trades we have to offer,” says Molander. 
While IBEW Local 364 recruits heavily among recent graduates, it’s also actively recruiting military veterans who’ve recently been discharged from service, because it’s possible they’ve already had some experience with electricity.

IBEW Local 364 takes applications on the first Tuesday of each month. Applicants complete an aptitude test before scheduling an in-person interview. Each fall, those who made the cut begin their apprentice classes. 
Throughout their training, apprentices learn all of the jobs an electrician can have. And they vary. Some may include conduit bending, motor controls, electrical theory, programmable logic controllers, fire alarm systems and fiber optic cabling.

“There’s everything from smaller residential projects all the way up to very big jobs,” explains Molander. “We cover the wiring behind the walls, which are very high-voltage, and the transmission lines that you see. There’s wireless everything that we have to be able to do. We might pull cables as big as your arm and pipe that’s 8 or 10 inches in diameter, down to a little half-inch pipe, and we have to fill it with wire and fiber optic.”

IBEW Local 364 electricians have played an important role in many of the Rockford area’s biggest construction projects. A few years ago, for example, they set vaults underground to carry high-voltage cabling to the new Mercyhealth Javon Bea Hospital and Physician Clinic-Riverside.

Members of IBEW Local 364 play a critical role behind many area construction projects.

And that’s just the start. IBEW’s work can also be found at Facebook’s data center in DeKalb, Ill., various wind and solar farms, the new SwedishAmerican Hospital addition and the new library in downtown Rockford.

Apprentices have plenty of exposure to these jobs during their training. Once they’ve completed that education and become a member of IBEW Local 364, they can enjoy a “first-class paycheck, pension and health insurance through the union,” says Molander. 

“When you come out of the apprenticeship, you’ll have 10,000 hours of on-the-job training,” he adds. “From our apprenticeship program, they’ll get an associate degree in applied science from Rock Valley College. Our apprentices, when they come out of there, are trained better than anybody, and they don’t have any college debt.”