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Unions focus on training to maintain skilled workforce

TERRE HAUTE — Workforce training is something officials with unions in Vigo County say they do annually to maintain a skilled workforce.

Unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 725, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 841, Regional Council of Carpenters Union Local 133 and Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 157 each have facilities to train new workers and update their existing workforce.

“We need more skilled workers, that is for sure, but I am not sure the state needs to pay for it. Every union has an apprentice program and spends a lot money on training people for vocational skills,” said Tom Ridge, business manager of the Operating Engineers Local 841.

The Indiana General Assembly is considering legislation to improve workforce training to overcome a “skills gap.” One proposal would create the Indiana Career Council (ICC), a 15-member panel designed to bring together the state’s workforce development efforts.

The ICC would be responsible for aligning education skills and training provided by the state’s educational, job skills and career training systems with the projected needs of the state’s job market.

According to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, 67 percent of manufacturing companies are reporting moderate-to-severe shortage of available, qualified workers, with 56 percent of those expecting a shortage to increase in the next three years. Manufacturing comprises 25 percent of Indiana’s gross state product.

“I don’t see as much of a skills gap in the construction industry, but I can’t speak for the manufacturing sector, which is something different. In the construction industry, I don’t see the skills gap,” Ridge said.

“We spend probably $1 million a year on training. Our members are dedicated to training and spend a lot of time to be highly trained. Eighty cents an hour [from union members] goes to our training site to keep our workers trained,” Ridge said.

Operating engineers — whose workers operate heavy machinery such as road graders, lifters or cranes — maintain a 290-acre training site north of Shirkieville and has had an apprentice program since the early 1970s, Ridge said.

Apprentices enter a four-year program, putting in 4,000 hours of training. The union, with 2,400 members in Indiana and Illinois, currently has about 120 apprentices, adding 10 to 30 new apprentices a year.

‘Work ethic gap’

John Pancake, director of education for the Carpenters Union Local 133, said most unions train workers to the required skill level needed for a task. However, the carpenters union, like many other unions, is now more often seeing a “work ethic gap.”

“One of the biggest complaints from our contractors is people [not] showing up for work or [not] showing up to work on time,” Pancake said. “Work ethic is a real hard one to train. It is a soft skill, definitely not a technical skill,” he said, adding the concern has arisen in the last eight to nine years.

Under its program, if an apprentice is constantly late or does not show up to work during a 180-day probationary period, he/she will not proceed in the program. In addition, the union has a “helmet to hard hat” program to recruit military veterans.

“If someone is in Afghanistan today, in about six weeks, we can have them in our program with direct-entry. There we have a very disciplined individual, not only with the work ethic, but they are ready to go every day on time in most cases,” Pancake said.

The union now has 115 military people in that program, he said.

Apprentices undergo 160 classroom hours per year and minimum of 1,300 hours of on-the-job training annually. There are 1,245 apprentices in the four-year program, Pancake said. The union has nine training centers in Indiana and Kentucky and in for four counties in Tennessee.

Training costs an average of $15,000 per apprentice per year. The union had a training budget of $7.8 million last year for its local and international union, with 16,000 members in the three state area, Pancake said. The funds come from collective bargaining agreements between the union and contractors.

The average age of a carpenter apprentice is 271⁄2 years old, as many enter the program as a second career choice, he said. Most unions in Vigo County have an agreement with Ivy Tech Community College and apprentices receive an associate’s degree after completing the apprentice training, Pancake said.

Greg Tucker, business representative for the Local 133, said he would invite any state legislators to look at their training facilities “to let them see what is happening, so we are not re-inventing the wheel. We have had several legislators already visit our facility,” he said.

Math skills needed

John “JB” Strange, financial secretary/treasurer for the Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 157, said one skills gap for potential apprentices is math readiness, followed by hands-on experience in such skills as welding.

“Most of the high schools are geared toward college or manufacturing and we struggle a little bit to find people that have the skills we are looking for in math and some hands-on type experience in apprentices when we take in a class,” Strange said.

Apprentices first undergo a state test on math, science and communication. Strange said that is where he has seen a dip in math ability. “We span a wide gamut of the work we do and that is why we need the training and good people. For example, there is a lot of instrumentation work on values,” he said.

Plumbers and steamfitters work on sanitary and water lines, on boiler systems for electrical generation, industrial piping, medical gas piping and heating, ventilation and cooling systems.

Strange said the union is strict on apprentices if they do not show up to training or work. The union, with 1,800 members, has about 175 apprentices in a five-year program. The union covers 22 counties. “We spend about $1.3 million for training just for our local. We figure it is about $10,000 per apprentice [annually] for training,” he said.

Joe Kerr, business manager of the IBEW, said any skills gap is likely a result of many schools, especially smaller high schools, dropping vocational training classes or reducing their importance.

“That is where we come in. At no cost to the state, all of the building trades have been doing this for years,” Kerr said. “It is done with an agreement between the labor union and the contractors that use that labor pool to work together to train their own people,” Kerr said. “We provide them with trained people and we share the costs and pretty much take care of our own needs.”

The IBEW has a five-year training program. Apprentices work during the day and attend school two nights a week. They undergo a minimum of 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 900 hours of classroom instruction before becoming a journey wireman, Kerr said.

“For us, industry and labor working together to take care of our own issues has worked well for us. We train to our needs, we know what we need and we train to that with no assistance from the state,” he said.

Kerr said a few weeks ago, the IBEW and other building trades had a luncheon for state lawmakers and booths at the Indiana Statehouse to explain their training. “Why should the state waste tax money to create something that already exists,” he said. “If we have [training] like this in place, why can’t it be used as a role model for other industries.”

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.


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