Apprenticeships: IBEW Local 1547: lighting up the state.
With the largest union organization in Alaska at roughly 4,700 members, IBEW Local 1547 also boasts the largest apprenticeship program. One in five apprentices studying in the state is part of the IBEW Local 1547 apprenticeship program.
"The apprenticeship program is an avenue for people in the state of Alaska to learn a trade they can use all their life and work in the industry," says Dave Reaves, assistant business manager of the Anchorage office of IBEW Local 1547.
In cooperation with the National Electrical Contractors Association, or NECA, IBEW Local 1547 runs a statewide apprenticeship program, with training taking place at the union's training facilities either in Fairbanks or in Anchorage. The union also has offices in Juneau and Ketchikan and apprentices across the state, but apprentices travel from the outlying communities to Anchorage or Fairbanks for the seven- or eight-week training sessions.
"We took in about one hundred [apprentices] in the last twelve months," says training director Jon Medaris. "Most of that was during the summer."
Medaris says apprentices are accepted throughout the year. When a union member retires or a new position opens up, an apprentice gets a spot and begins training and working toward his or her journeyman status.
"We take them in as fast as we can put them to work," he says. "If we have an opportunity to put someone in a job, we'll take someone in."
It's not an easy program to get into, he says.
"We had over four hundred applicants this year. It's a competitive process. There were a lot of good applicants that didn't get into the program this year," Medaris says.
He says he encourages the applicants to keep trying. Once in the program, they generally have a thirty-year career ahead of them, he says, so a couple years spent waiting for an apprenticeship slot to open isn't a big deal in the long run.
IBEW and NECA, Partnership for the Future
The training program is jointly coordinated by IBEW Local 1547 and the Alaska Chapter of NECA. The Alaska Joint Electrical Apprenticeship and Training Trust, or AJEATT, administers the program. NECA Alaska chapter executive Larry Bell says NECA represents the companies that employ IBEW members.
"NECA is an association of electrical contractors that are union signatory," Bell says. "IBEW represents the workforce for a NECA contractor, it is where they go to work."
It takes more than $2 million a year to run the training program, which has several, mostly part-time, trainers and a few full-time staff, like Medaris. The program is paid for through employer/member contributions negotiated into the wage and benefit packages, typically at the rage of about 95 cents per hour.
It's a partnership that has been in place since 1941. Bell says it's beneficial for contractors to participate in the program.
"Our contractors have bought into the idea that combining classroom instruction on electrical theory, standards, and safe practices with actual on-the-job training is the best practice for workforce development," Bell says.
One Union, Three Main Branches
IBEW Local 1547 apprentices have an opportunity to narrow their focus on a chosen field right from the start. Apprentices train to become wiremen, linemen, or telecommunication workers. A handful also trains as tree trimmers who clear power line paths.
Apprentices interview with one branch or another. AJEATT interview committees generally have four industry-specific members, half of them made up of employers and half union representatives. Two members from each side represent the three classifications of training.
Each discipline has different training requirements. While a wiremen applicant might be selected as an apprentice and sent right into the field, linemen typically go through training first, to learn how to climb poles and work around the high-voltage wires they will be dealing with.
"The job is so dangerous, we want to make sure they can safely be part of a crew ... before they go out there on the job," Medaris says.
Apprentices in each classification spend about 8,000 hours working in the field. Another 1,000 to 1,400 hours, depending on the classification, is spent in the classroom.
Linemen go through three eight-week training sessions, he says. Telecommunications workers go through two eight-week sessions and two six-week sessions. Wiremen go through five seven-week sessions.
Medaris says it takes apprentices about five years to complete the program--sometimes longer if work isn't readily available.
"Construction is seasonal, so it just depends on what kinds of jobs they get on and whether they get a lot of overtime on the job or not," he says.
While they're working their way through the program, apprentices earn a fraction of what journeymen IBEW members make. Pay starts out at 50 percent of the wages of a journeyman in whichever classification the apprentice is training for. That's generally between $20 and $25 per hour plus benefits, Medaris says. After roughly every 1,000 hours of completed work, the apprentice gets a 5 percent pay increase.
"By the time they're done, they're getting 80 percent of what a journeyman gets paid," Bell says.
The commitment on the part of the employers, he says, is that over the course of the 30 percent increase in pay, the apprentice is going to be tasked with increasingly more complex work, eventually building toward journeyman-level tasks. When the apprentice passes required state licensing exams and meets the hour requirements to attain journeyman status, he or she is eligible for full journeyman wages.
"Our contractors realize if they want to replace the guy or gal who's been with them twenty years and who's retiring, the best way to get an individual ready to replace them is going through this model," Bell says.
Building on a History of Electrical Workers
Chanique Spires, twenty-nine, is in training to become a wireman. Spires says she's been interested in electrical work most of her life and is excited to be training for a career in the field.
Spires was raised in Alaska but left the state to attend training through the Astoria, Oregon, Job Corps program, where they had an electrical program opening. Following her Job Corps graduation, she went to work for Genie Industries, a manufacturing company that makes work lifts and aerial platforms for job sites. At Genie she wired electrical harnesses and other similar tasks. But she wanted to be more focused on electrical work, so she returned to Alaska and applied to the NECA/IBEW Local 1547 apprenticeship program. She has three uncles who have had careers with the IBEW Local 1547.
Spires says she didn't have to wait too long; she applied in January and interviewed in May for a spot in the apprenticeship program. She started working in August, she says, and will attend her first round of training in February.
If she hadn't gotten into the program, Spires says she may have returned to Washington to work for Genie International or may have waited out a spot in the program while continuing to work for Lynden Transport, where she worked when she returned to the state. But she's very happy an apprenticeship slot opened so quickly and she's enjoyed the work so far.
"I've been able to see more of Alaska with this job than I would have normally seen," Spires says. She recounts that she traveled to Kenai Peninsula for her first assignment, then to Palmer for a project replacing fire alarms at Palmer High School.
"I have the potential to go to Bethel or Barrow. I think that's amazing, that I have the opportunity to travel so much and see the state. And the security, knowing that I'm backed up by the IBEW, it makes it more than a job, it makes it a career," Spires says.
The apprenticeship is more intense than going through the electrical training program at Job Corps or simply working a job. Instead of clocking in and clocking out, apprentices log their hours carefully, outlining the various tasks they completed during each block of time. They're responsible for turning them in and tracking their progress.
"Your progression is up to you, totally. What you do is completely on you," Spires says. "You feel more like you're accomplishing something. It's a different feeling--I'm building America in a way."
Training the Future
Like other construction trade members, IBEW members would be a vital part of any liquefied natural gas pipeline project, as well as the Donlin Gold mine and other projects that are on the horizon.
Electrical workers will be a vital part of pipeline construction, Medaris says, be cause only a quarter of the pipeline project is directly related to pipeline construction. Most of the estimated construction costs are related to the gas treatment plant proposed for construction at Prudhoe Bay and for the liquefaction plant at Nikiski.
"Any time you're building a huge industrial project, electricians are going to be a big part of the project. They're going to be one of the first ones on the job," he says.
Medaris and Reaves say they are ready to expand the apprenticeship program if called on to do so, but another solution seems more practical.
"The only reasonable way to do it is to ramp the work up and fund these other projects that will kind of bridge the gap," Medaris says. "We brought in one hundred apprentices last year, but we'd bring in two hundred if the work was there. We can't bring them in if the work isn't there, and you wouldn't get anyone turned out unless the work was there--they'd just be sitting there and it would take them twice as long to complete their hours."
Rindi White is a freelance journalist living in Palmer.
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|Title Annotation:||WORKFORCE TRAINING|
|Comment:||Apprenticeships: IBEW Local 1547: lighting up the state.(WORKFORCE TRAINING)|
|Publication:||Alaska Business Monthly|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2016|
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