Forget quaint images of young woodworkers learning their crafts alongside master carpenters: New Jersey’s union apprenticeships increasingly are going high tech and higher education.
Consider that some carpenter trainees are learning specialized pile driving skills, enabling them to insert deep shafts into the Atlantic Ocean for offshore wind turbines to power New Jersey’s green energy future.
Think about fledgling operating engineers learning the technology of advanced railroad machinery to lay tracks, ties and ballast more efficiently on NJ Transit systems.
Then there are some young electricians, fresh off apprenticeships, earning construction management degrees at Rowan University – with 75% of tuition costs union paid.
“Apprenticeships in general just provide a better quality of worker,’’ says Bernard T. Corrigan, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 102, noting he also believes in four-year degrees and has a master’s degree himself. “It’s about providing different options and pathways for everyone to a career that can support a family and help contribute to the local economy.’’
The big draw to union apprenticeships is earning while learning, instead of incurring significant college debt to be paid back early in a career. With Gov. Phil Murphy’s support for state financing and program approvals, apprenticeships are a key element of workforce development in the Garden State.
But it takes a firm commitment of time and work: Completing a union apprenticeship takes four to five years.
Funded by union members, the electrical apprenticeship program serves more than 250 trainees, takes five years, and requires 900 hours of classroom instruction and 8,000 hours of, on-the-job training. The focus is on core electrical training, along with safety programs, but special areas receive emphasis, as did solar power in recent years.
Electrical apprentices start at a $23.21 hourly wage – well above the state minimum – that ratchets up to $58.03 hourly upon completion. The union then advances a select few to Rowan for construction management degrees.
“In order to improve businesses here, you have to be able to have programs that are developing the type of worker that they need,’’ Corrigan says.
Greg Lalevee, business administrator for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 825, marvels at how 500 to 600 would-be apprentices line up for applications after Labor Day every other year. Only 150 apprentices were in the program until late spring, with another 35 starting opening classroom credits after a Covid-19 pandemic delay.
Training on machines like cranes, bulldozers and excavators mostly occurs at the union’s 61-acre training center, visible to New Jersey Turnpike drivers, in Dayton.
“We can make mistakes there. … I don’t mean this disrespectfully to my friends in other trades, but a carpenter bends a nail and you take the nail and put a new one in,’’ Lalevee says. “A laborer makes a mistake with a jackhammer and you’ve got to do some cosmetic work, but you can brush past that. An operating engineer has some kind of incident or accident and it’s thousands of dollars, if not a news story. … So for us, that all comes back to being well trained.’’
Fortunately, Lalevee says, the pandemic is having little impact outside the classroom, and actually is moving real-world road projects much faster with the sharp traffic reductions.
“The good thing about operating engineers is we’re masters of social distancing,’’ Lalevee says. “Nobody is going to go sit on your lap if you’re operating a bulldozer or an excavator. There’s only one seat on these things.”
Not all machinery training can be done at the Dayton facility. Lalevee explains the union teamed with the state to get funding for apprentices to use highly technical and specialized heavy rail equipment to replace tracks, ties and ballast on an NJ Transit project.
“The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development has allowed us to get pretty innovative and supported different kinds of training,’’ Lalevee notes.
Computer and technological advances in GPS, artificial intelligence, and robotics are moving full throttle in operating equipment, and the union is seeking state approval for turning its training facility into a two-year, stand-alone college.
The Northeast Carpenters Apprenticeship Training Fund, meanwhile, serves up to 1,200 apprentices as part of a four-year program with training facilities in Edison and Hammonton. Completion requires 1,000 hours at a center and 7,000 hours of on-the-job training. The first year pays roughly $40,000, topping out at more than $100,000 annually upon completion.
Robert Smith, the program’s supervisor of instruction, cites a cooperative initiative among unions and companies, with the fund’s board an equal mix of labor and contractor representatives.
Smith says instructors stay current on industry trends, with a focus on having apprentices ready for jobs.
“Is this kid trained and ready for the workforce?” Smith constantly asks instructors. “We need to have that open dialogue between our employers and our training centers. And that’s what keeps us evolving.”
At Hammonton, for example, pile driver apprentices train to eventually help build enormous offshore wind power systems, while carpenter and millwright apprentices receive instruction on wind turbine technology.
A continual focus is on teaching – not just for apprentices, but also for high school students in the union’s pre-apprenticeship program, in addition to veteran journeyman carpenters honing and advancing their skills.
“When it comes time to build something, you need that education behind you: That education in health and safety, in the latest emerging technologies, and just how to do things properly,” he says.
COVID-19 presented Smith with the unique opportunity to help develop a safety-training program for union members on the crisis’ front lines, like those building temporary hospitals. The course is now given to union members in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan and California, and is translated into several languages.
“I never thought in a million years that I’d be a part of something like that. It’s humbling,’’ Smith says. “This is just another extension of hazard awareness.”
For Smith, the true value of union trade apprenticeships is simple.
“Nobody is outsourcing your hands or your brains,’’ Smith says, citing an ability to make “a decent family-sustaining wage’’ throughout a career. “It’s a skill that can provide for your family for the rest of your life. To work as a union carpenter and a union tradesperson, it’s something that you can achieve to retire with dignity someday. That’s why it’s essential.”
How Stockton University partners with business.
Colleges and universities are striving to cultivate the next generation of employees who will meet the ever-changing needs of local employers. Stockton University, for example, partners with companies from an array of industries – from accounting firms, non-profit agencies, and healthcare and government offices to casino hotels and resorts and retail businesses – to stay on top of the latest industry demands and ensure that students are cultivating the skills they need to succeed upon graduation.
“We rely upon local businesses as sources of ideas to enhance our curriculum, such as through advisory boards that consist of executives from leading firms in the region,” explains Dr. Alphonso Ogbuehi, dean of the School of Business at Stockton University. Some of the ways the university utilizes these partnerships include inviting executives as guest speakers in the classroom or hosting panel discussions on interviewing or social skills.
The university also routinely seeks businesses to serve as project clients for students in various disciplines, such as marketing, hospitality and business analytics. The projects allow students to learn firsthand the issues local firms face while at the same time offering valuable service at little or no charge.
“It’s a symbiotic partnership that benefits both students and local businesses,” he adds. “The collaboration between New Jersey’s colleges and universities with businesses in our communities is essential because we need to build bridges that allow us to transfer knowledge from the classroom into the real-world business environment.”
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