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Earn While You Learn – Crain’s Chicago Business

Like a lot of high school students, Rory Condon wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduation. He worked mostly dead-end jobs for over a decade, and then decided it was time for a change. Condon decided to go back to school and find a career. He took some technical classes at the College of DuPage, a community college in the western suburbs, where he was introduced to the Project Hire-Ed Apprenticeship Program. The “earn and learn” program combines on-the-job training with in-person instruction.

Condon attended a two-day seminar held by Project Hire-Ed focused on how to build a resume, mock interviews, and communications skills. Prospective employers gave presentations and answered questions about the apprenticeship process. One of the participating companies, Principal Manufacturing Corp., held an open house after the seminar. Condon went to the open house, took a tour, and scheduled an interview with the human resources department. A job offer soon followed and he accepted. Condon now plans to finish the work needed for his apprenticeship certificate, and then continue his education at the College of DuPage to obtain an associate degree. “I have every resource I need to succeed,” he says.

Skilled workers, like Condon, are in demand. The state’s big $45 billion infrastructure plan, Rebuild Illinois, is expected to create thousands of skilled trade jobs. Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is undergoing an $8.5 billion modernization project. After a pause during the pandemic, construction starts are rising again and more companies are tapping into apprenticeship programs to fill vacant jobs.

The Chicago area has a number of apprenticeship programs that train workers for a skilled trade. The programs combine classroom instruction and paid on-the-job training. Trade unions, in partnership with employers, offer many of the apprenticeships. Iron workers, electricians, carpenters and cement masons are just a few of the local trades with apprenticeship programs. Some companies offer trade apprenticeships too.

The Hire-Ed program at the College of DuPage has eight apprentice tracks in manufacturing and one in heating, ventilation and air conditioning. The apprentice is employed and earns income while attending the College of DuPage. Apprentices have two years of classroom instruction while working and then two years of working full time for their employer. “There are so many manufacturing jobs in DuPage County,” says Danielle Kuglin Seago, manager of Project Hire-Ed. “This program is really about building talent.”

Apprenticeship programs in Illinois are growing, according to Frank Manzo, policy director, Illinois Economic Policy Institute. The number of apprentices statewide grew from 11,000 in 2011 to 17,000 in 2019, a 44% growth rate, the Institute’s latest figures show. About 85% of the apprenticeships are in the construction trades. The other 15% are in areas such as transportation and manufacturing.

The Institute’s research also finds that apprenticeships deliver training, graduation rates and competitive earnings that rival the state’s 4-year universities. “These are well-paid, stable jobs,” Manzo says.

Starting pay for union apprentices is about $20 an hour. Wages gradually increase the longer the apprentice is on the job. Trade apprenticeships last about 4-5 years.

Off to a good start

Before applying for an apprenticeship, many workers attend a pre-apprenticeship program. These programs are offered by community colleges, trade schools and nonprofit organizations. The pre-apprenticeship program prepares workers to apply for apprenticeships which often have testing and other requirements for admission.

Chicago Women in Trades trains about 100 women a year. The organization offers training focused on entering union construction apprenticeships, as well as training for welding jobs. The 12-week classes are free. Applicants can apply online. Information sessions introduce applicants to different job options. “The apprenticeship application process in the construction industry is complex,” says Jayne Vellinga, executive director at Chicago Women in Trades.

Several thousand women have been trained since the program began in 1987. About 70% of the women who attend the program graduate into an apprenticeship.

Vellinga hopes to launch a new program soon that would provide one week of training at five different apprenticeship programs to give women more hands-on experience. “We need to normalize women’s participation in the trades,” she says.

HIRE360 is a nonprofit organization that prepares underrepresented populations for apprenticeships. “The opportunities are incredible,” says HIRE360 Executive Director Jay Rowell. The organization partners with local developers, contractors and labor unions to support job seekers with career counseling, case management, skills training, and grants for tools or transportation to job sites.

Developer Related Midwest, a founding partner of HIRE360, recently expanded its partnership with the organization. Related Midwest’s nonprofit arm will join HIRE360 to provide residents at Parkway Gardens, in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, with free training, apprenticeships and job placement opportunities in the real estate development and construction sector.

A competitive process

While a pre-apprenticeship program is good preparation, individuals can usually apply directly for a trade apprenticeship.

The Electrical Contractors Association of Chicago and IBEW Local 134, offer two apprenticeship programs open to anyone. Applicants must be age 18 and have a high school degree or GED with a grade of “C” or better in math. The electrical construction apprenticeship lasts five years; the electrical communications apprenticeship is four years long.

Applicants who are accepted attend class five days a week for 11 weeks at the electricians training center, the IBEW/NECA Technical Institute in Alsip. The state-of-the-art 120,000-square-foot institute includes classrooms and technical labs and sits on 29 acres. The institute also features a Renewable Energy Training Field with solar, wind and battery storage components for apprentices to learn about new technology.

Apprentices are paid after the first 11 weeks when they are assigned to a job with a contractor. Apprentices return to the classroom for nine weeks during the second and third years of training. Upon completion apprentices may stay with their assigned contractor or, if the works run out there, the union finds them a new job.

About 1,700 applications are received annually for 300-400 openings. “The apprentice selection process is competitive, but fair,” says Gene Kent, director of training at the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute. He adds, “It’s a great career.”

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