The construction labor shortage isn’t going away. In fact, it’s growing. In response, the value of a trade education also is rising. It’s beginning to change minds and attitudes.


Tradespeople are today’s salespeople—educating the uninformed and reluctant on the viability of construction careers. You can see a change in the makeup of apprentices going through International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers/National Electrical Contractors Association (IBEW/NECA) training centers. Many are job-changers with college degrees drawn to electrical work. High schools adding trade career education tracks potentially has even more impact.


The “2017 Union Craft Labor Supply Survey,” by the Association of Union Constructors, revealed worker shortages had increased in 2016. Of the 791 management and union representative respondents, building trades were in the shortest supply—54 percent of respondents being electricians. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) reports that the average age of a skilled worker is over 50 years old, and for every five tradesmen who leave the industry, only one replaces them. ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR’s 2016 Profile of the Electrical Contractor places the average age of its workforce at 57.3 years.


IBEW Local No. 134 and NECA Chicago are trying something new. In collaboration with the city and Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Local No. 134 has developed a curriculum for the Chicago Builds program, a two-year construction training program for 11th- and 12th-grade CPS students. The program was rolled out at Dunbar Career Academy High School in the 2016–2017 school year.


“The mayor’s office asked Don Finn, business manager for Local 134, for IBEW and NECA’s participation in the Chicago Builds program,” said John Donahue, director for the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute, Alsip, Ill. “We provide teaching assistance and a curriculum. After an introduction to the construction industry in general, we move into electrical work with material identification, tool usage and hands-on activities.”


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Local No. 134 also developed the electric shop at Dunbar. Vendors such as Greenlee and Milwaukee Tool donated equipment.


“Many students, and possibly their parents, may not even be familiar with trade professions,” Donahue said. “By providing an active and hands-on classroom, we begin to explore the work of an electrician and possibly pique their interest.”


Mario Miller, Local No. 134, is the instructor at Dunbar. He offers five two-hour sessions a week for interested Dunbar students in the morning. Classes repeat in the afternoon for interested students from other area high schools.


“This was our first year, so we had to recruit students,” he said. “Word of mouth should bolster numbers next year, and then we keep building. There are over 260 applications for the Chicago Builds program [in the 2017–2018 school year].”


Interested parents have shown up at open houses with their sons or daughters to learn more.


“We’ve gotten a very positive response,” Miller said. “Parents want their kids to look into the electrical trades. The Dunbar project is a perfect match. We’re hopeful other Chicago schools will adopt the Dunbar program. If we succeed, other trades will follow with their curriculum.”


Engaging students


Miller grew up in Chicago and was educated in the city’s schools, so he is familiar with the environment.


“At Dunbar, these kids may come from a disadvantaged or poor background,” he said. “They see me, a black electrician. I’m someone who looks like them with relatable circumstances, and I have this successful career. That, itself, is influential and opens their minds to the possibility of profession and avenues to success. I’m also an example of someone who switched careers to become an electrician.”


Miller previously worked in video production at a big advertising agency. He was drawn to the mobility of an electrical career and the opportunity to grow, which he shares with his students in Chicago Builds.


Donahue said the hands-on element of the classes makes electrical work come alive for the students.


“They see results based on what the project involves, such as wiring a light fixture,” he said. “That engages them and sparks interest. … The expectation isn’t that students come out of the Dunbar program as electricians. Rather, they are exposed to the concepts and explore them. I would add, students who complete the two-year Dunbar program will have a leg up in knowledge and experience if they enter our apprenticeship program.”


IBEW Local No. 134/NECA Chicago also has developed next-step exposure for Dunbar graduates. Each is guaranteed a spot with the Market Expansion Program. Meeting three consecutive Saturdays, participants brush up on math skills, receive additional tool-use instruction, and safety training. Next is the opportunity to be on a job site for up to a year and get paid an hourly rate assisting journeyman and apprentices. 


A percentage of Dunbar program graduates may become tomorrow’s apprentices. It’s already happening through an electrical trade program at Simeon Career Academy High School that predates Chicago Builds.


“Parents and others are now recognizing the value of a trade education as one more option,” Donahue said. “We’ve even gotten a number of guidance counselors on board. We share information on starting wage, wage growth, career advancement and mobility, and training. They are liking what they hear.”


“By exposing high school students to trade career options, you sense that those who become interested will really want to do it. For contractors, they may end up with a very committed future employee,” he added.