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NECA and IBEW STEM Programs Draw Students to Trade Careers

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Published On
Feb 4, 2021

Employers are increasingly recognizing the value of STEM education in the development of capable students who will eventually be qualified workers. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math—four academic disciplines that are vital for trades such as electrical contracting, as well as numerous other industries. NECA, the IBEW and their partners in Chicago have several programs to encourage students to pursue STEM education and electrical contracting careers.

Serving to attract students to STEM careers is Chicago Builds, a careers in technical education program offered by Chicago Public Schools. This two-year off-campus construction training program prepares juniors and seniors for entrance into IBEW 134’s apprenticeship program, which can lead to additional higher education.

Isaiah Hill entered the Chicago Builds program as a senior, commuting daily from Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood to afternoon classes at nearby Dunbar High School. Mentored by two IBEW 134 instructors, Hill and 14 students from other city schools made circuit boards for doorbells and wired a model house. Instructors also reinforced math and life skills, from money management to on-time attendance.

Already a second-year apprentice, Hill works for Moran Electrical Contracting in Alsip, Ill. Once he becomes a journeyman, he plans to use IBEW 134’s tuition reimbursement to further his education at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He aims to become an electrical engineer.

In October 2019, the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute in Alsip, Ill., hosted a one-day STEM competition for 160 high school students from 10 Chicago-area schools.

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Though COVID-19 necessitated cancellation of the 2020 competition, Powering Chicago, which frequently unites IBEW 134 and the Electrical Contractors’ Association of the City of Chicago in such collaborations, plans to resume the competition this fall. It may even establish a second event for Chicago Public Schools. If the pandemic hangs on, competitions may switch to a virtual format, said Elbert Walters III, Powering Chicago director.

“We’re working really hard to improve our STEM program, so we definitely wanted to be a part of this,” said Jill Nagel, director of guidance for St. Rita of Cascia High School on Chicago’s South Side. “Our students love anything competitive.”

Offering tickets to a Northwestern University football game as prizes, the event introduced school teams to electrical industry tasks handled by everyone from electricians to project managers.

“The feedback from the schools was fantastic,” said Gene Kent, IBEW-NECA Technical Institute director. “The consensus was that other STEM programs were far less engaging, where kids had to read a book, write a paper or make a report. We offered a combination of physical and mental activities. The kids loved it!”

Students worked together, calculating needs and output for solar power generation, and later put together a solar array. Physical tasks included bending conduit, climbing and learning safety and materials handling.

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All IBEW 134 instructors participated in the event, which was scheduled during a gap in regular training sessions. “It was an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Kent said.

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

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