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Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/31/2013

COMMENTARY

At Toledo’s Electrician U, there are no softball courses

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR
Instructor Nate Eaton, left, watches apprentice electricians David Conner of Woodville, Ohio, John Quist of Adrian, and Matt Taylor of Toledo work on a lesson in the wind turbine certification program at the Toledo Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee center in Rossford. Instructor Nate Eaton, left, watches apprentice electricians David Conner of Woodville, Ohio, John Quist of Adrian, and Matt Taylor of Toledo work on a lesson in the wind turbine certification program at the Toledo Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee center in Rossford.
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The victim has just had a heart attack at the top of a 60-foot-high wind turbine. His co-workers have four minutes to bring him down, while they deploy the on-site defibrillator and call 911.

I’m standing at the bottom, looking around uselessly. But others know what to do: One man, in hard hat and climbing harness, scrambles up a ladder inside the building. He hoists and positions the unconscious, 165-pound victim in the safe, efficient manner he has been taught.

Two other men pull on the rope that assists their descent. A supervisor shouts encouragement: “Good speed — keep going — good job.” The victim and his rescuer touch down with time to spare.

The victim is a dummy. The turbine is a climbing silo. The workers are a dozen visitors from Detroit. The supervisor is their safety instructor. And the rescue is a training exercise — but next time it might not be.

The emergency simulation is part of the instruction offered by the Toledo Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, a center run by Local 8 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and sponsored by contractors in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. It’s a real — not merely rhetorical — expression of labor-management cooperation.

For more than three decades, the center in Rossford has trained apprentice and journeyman electricians, not only to master traditional tasks such as wiring, welding, and installation, but also to acquire advanced skills in such leading-edge industries as wind and solar power, fiber optics, and preparing automated, energy-efficient “smart” buildings.

The center has its own windmill, which helps power the campus and supplies a small amount of commercial energy, as well as a solar array built in a photovoltaics class. The committee also provides safety training such as the rescue exercise, along with computer instruction.

As the Toledo area slowly emerges from the recession, construction work is providing high-paying local jobs with good benefits. But the body of technical knowledge that electricians must master is complex, demanding, and constantly changing. That’s where the center’s on-the-job training and classroom instruction offer value.

In many instances, says David Wellington, the center’s director for 21 years, the committee has had to create its training programs because no one else offered them. The center, funded by nearly $3 million a year in contributions from more than 100 union-affiliated electrical contractors and their customers in the region, attracts students from across the country.

“We save contractors an enormous amount of money” on training they otherwise would have to provide, Mr. Wellington told me. “The biggest challenge is staying on the cutting edge. Construction is so different today, we have to pursue new markets.”

The joint committe enrolls 212 apprentices in commercial, residential, and telecommunications programs, who get paid while they learn. The commercial training program takes five years — longer than students traditionally spend to earn a college degree.

“It all starts here,” says Toledo City Council member Shaun Enright, an organizer for Local 8. “From nuclear powerhouses to wiring homes, [apprentices] walk out of here and they do it.”

Apprenticeship applicants must be at least 17 years old, although the typical apprentice is in his or her mid-20s. They must have a high-school diploma or its equivalent, and know algebra. Like a college, the center selects students on the basis of their high-school grades, work experience, and performance in a personal interview.

It isn’t easy. Candidates can wait as long as two years to be admitted to the apprentice programs; about 90 percent of applicants are turned away. Mr. Wellington notes that the national code that electricians must master is written at a college-senior level. Apprentices’ absences and lateness can delay their pay increases.

Yet even as the local jobless rate remains high, committee officials fret that the number of apprentices they train has dropped. A dozen years ago, the center enrolled 450 apprentices — more than twice as many as it does today.

“People these days don’t appreciate working with their hands,” says Joe Cousineau, Local 8’s business manager. “Guys are retiring — someday there’s going to be demand [for electricians], and we’re not going to be able to supply them.”

Mr. Wellington concedes that only about 4 percent of current apprentices at the center are women. “Construction is a nontraditional occupation, so it’s hard to get women to apply,” he says.

About 18 percent of apprentices are minorities, Mr. Cousineau says. The apprenticeship programs enroll a small number of former offenders, but Mr. Cousineau says that security and background checks required of employers at sensitive facilities can make employment of ex-convicts there difficult.

As you might expect, apprentices say they appreciate most the opportunity to learn skills that will provide lifelong careers. But they also cite the friendships they’ve made with their colleagues and teachers.

Jason Pietrowski, a fourth-year apprentice, says his experience has taught him “how the real world works — getting the job done on time and right the first time. It was the best decision I made.”

About 2,300 journeymen, many of them in their mid-40s, attend continuing-education classes to sharpen current skills and learn new ones. On this day, Mr. Wellington and I drop in on a safety training class.

“You guys feel safer?” he asks. The students grin and nod.

Local 8 and other area construction-trades unions attracted notoriety in recent months when they used their influence with the Lucas County Democratic Party and a majority on City Council to get Mr. Enright appointed to fill a council vacancy. Whatever the merits of that application of political muscle, operations such as the training center provide a reminder of how local private-sector unions are working usefully to develop the Toledo area’s work force and advance its economy.

“If we don’t train our workers, there’s going to be a shortage,” Mr. Wellington says. “Year after year, we never let down. We keep training, training, training.”

For more information about the training center, call 419-666-8088 or visit tejatc.org.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com or on Twitter @dkushma1



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