Trade union apprenticeships remain in high demand and continue to adapt to the technology-driven skills needed in emerging areas such as solar and wind energy and 5G conductivity.
Construction apprentices realize they can earn good money while completing an apprenticeship in the time it takes to go to college and emerge with high-paying jobs and full benefits unburdened by college debt. Construction trade apprenticeships are using high-tech training to produce workers prepared for the challenges of increasingly sophisticated systems they are being asked to build. For example, today’s carpentry apprentices are as likely to use an iPad as a hammer in learning parts of their trade.
The approximately 150 apprentices of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local #825 (ELEC) must complete 144 hours of mandatory classroom training a year. However, they often go well beyond that to get additional required certifications to meet OSHA requirements as well as HAZMAT safety, rigging and crane signaling.
“Then, we get them out on the job and learning directly from journeymen workers as much as we can,” says Greg Lalevee, business manager for IUOE Local 825.
The union operates a 61-acre training site with 150 pieces of heavy equipment in Dayton. It also uses a NJ Pathways Leading Apprentices to a College Education (NJ PLACE) grant in partnership with Hudson County Community College. The grant program encourages the development of degree apprenticeship structures that integrate paid on-the-job learning with credit-bearing classroom education.
“We’re also in the process of trying to have our apprenticeship program and school certified as a two-year college,” Lalevee says. IUOE apprentices earn 60% of a journeyman’s pay in their first year of apprenticeship and it increases 10% for each of their four apprenticeship years.
The demands of expanding technology use are broadening apprenticeships in the construction trades. Operating engineers need to learn how to operate heavy equipment with GPS controls and run cranes with computers. Technology also is making it safer and easier to learn a trade.
“The convenience of online classwork has helped balance the demands of working fulltime and meeting educational requirements,” says Robert Lewandowski of the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA). “For some classes, virtual reality has made learning safer and more realistic.”
Training at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) includes continuing education and is evolving to include technology such as CAD (computer-aided design), BIM (building information modeling), and platforms for estimating such as Accubid (an electrical project estimating solution).
“We also have a tuition reimbursement program as a tool for our members,” says IBEW Local 102 President Bernard Corrigan. “As technology changes, we recognize there may be times that our partners in the education community may be better prepared to deliver specialized training. Providing up to 75% tuition reimbursement both opens the door and encourages our membership to embrace new technology and educational pathways.” IBEW partnered with Rowan University in 2017 for members to work toward a bachelor’s degree in construction management.
IBEW Local 102 apprentices start at $23.46 an hour and their pay increases to $46.92 an hour in the fifth and final apprenticeship year as they complete 900 hours of classroom instruction and 8,000 hours of on-the-job training.
The Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters (EASRCC) Apprenticeship Fund has about 1,200 apprentices in New Jersey as part of a four-year program operated through regional apprenticeship programs in eastern states. In New Jersey, the apprenticeship program is run by the Northeast Carpenters Apprentice Training Fund (NCATF) with training facilities in Edison and Hammonton. NCATF is funded by contractor contributions and operated by a joint committee of union representatives from EASRCC and contractor representatives from Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey (ACCNJ).
“NCATF is currently investing heavily in preparing our workforce to participate in the upcoming offshore wind projects. We are responding to a strong resurgence in demand for solar power installation technicians,” says Nick DeMatteo, executive director of EASRCC Apprenticeship Funds, who also speaks on behalf of NCATF.
The NCATF is responding to a rapidly growing need for expertise in building construction using panelized systems and has transitioned to training apprentices in the use of iPads and tablets in the workplace. They are learning to use modern construction management software, electronic prints, and automated optical layout equipment.
“A century ago, a contractor hired a laborer for their physical strength and endurance. While our work is still physically demanding, our members are also operating ground penetrating radar, laser levels, mechanical scaffolding and more,” Lewandowski says, adding that a LIUNA apprenticeship requires at least 400 hours of classroom instruction and 4,000 hours of on-the-job training, with credit for previous construction experience.
LIUNA has 493 apprentices, including 202 who identify as Caucasian, 165 African Americans, and 85 Hispanics. Women make up 8% of LIUNA apprentices, more than three times the national average. “Through its apprenticeship program, LIUNA has created unique workforce development partnerships with municipalities and non-profits, and we are able to bring new members who traditionally were underserved in the building trades,” Lewandowski says. LIUNA apprentices start at 60% of a journey worker’s rate or $22 to $26 an hour, depending on specialization, and receive health and retirement benefits.
DeMatteo notes that union carpenters in New Jersey experienced a reduction of approximately 13% in work hours overall and NCATF reduced its intake of new apprentices proportionally. Like the other trade union officials interviewed, he reports more of a work shortage than a labor shortage.
“Our challenge is creating enough opportunities for the number of qualified applicants we receive seeking entry to our program,” he says.
The aging workforce has been more of a factor than the coronavirus in terms of labor availability.
“The average age in our local is probably 46 years old and I would say we’re on the lower end of the spectrum,” Lalevee, of IUOE, says. “We’re seeing retirements accelerate.”
With the state’s infrastructure needs, which include a 110-year-old rail tunnel going into Manhattan, a third of our roads in disrepair, and $25 billion in drinking water and wastewater capital needs, Lewandowski says the state will have to invest and that’s going to create a strong pipeline of construction jobs.
“Along with all of that, we also need to address the impact of climate change. Everything from flood control and mitigation to investments in renewable energy and a smart grid is scaling up,” he notes. “The major developers like Ørsted and Atlantic Shores are turning to LIUNA and its contractors to meet its workforce needs. We are seeing that new industries recognize that they don’t need to build a workforce from scratch and can benefit from the education and training programs and experience of the building trades unions.”
Biopharmaceutical company revamped its internship program to make glum grads glad.
Last year, as job prospects for newly graduated college students began to disappear due to COVID-19 related business shutdowns, PTC Therapeutics Chief Executive Officer Stuart W. Peltz, Ph.D., and his staff recognized the need to keep recent graduates employed.
“Kids who graduated and were recently hired were soon losing their jobs because of the pandemic. The apple cart was literally turned over for them as they were let go from their first career choices,” Peltz explains.
To help these graduates, Peltz and other PTC executives at the South Plainfield-based biopharmaceutical company decided to turn their 16-week internship program into the one-year Talent Pipeline Program, a global internship program for the company, which has 25 locations across more than 20 countries.
The Talent Pipeline Program provides recent graduates with real-world experiences in the life sciences industry and related professions. It could be actual research & development and manufacturing positions, but the internships also include positions in finance, commercial, compliance, quality, legal, information technology, and communications.
Graduates can earn up to $30,000 during the one-year program. PTC has hired a number of students, while others went on to pursue doctorate degrees or jobs elsewhere. During the internship, participants are provided mentorship, job coaching, career counseling, and leadership training. Successful participants are provided a Certificate of Completion, a letter of reference, and consideration for future positions at PTC.
Peltz recalls that at the outset of the Talent Pipeline program, 3,000 graduates applied, with PTC selecting 53 interns. “The number just kept growing and growing and now we have a quorum of interns,” he says.
Some interns are able to work virtually, while others need to live near PTC’s research, technical operations or manufacturing sites.
Peltz says the program will continue even though the economy is returning back to normal. He adds that during the pandemic, PTC had actually hired 300 people. The company employed more than 1,000 people at the end of 2020. Additionally, net product revenues for the year were $331 million, a 14% increase from 2019.
— By Anthony Birritteri
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