Apprenticeship Outreach

Story by Shelley Parker | September 28, 2010

Portland continues to grow. And it's no secret that the construction industry is facing a challenge with recruitment. The current average age of a Portland tradesperson is 48. As the baby boomer workforce continues to retire, all of the trades will soon experience shortages.

According to Oregon's Department of Employment, the construction industry is anticipating the need for 10,700 new construction jobs by 2014; 6,000 to replace those leaving the workforce and 4,600 to accommodate the region's anticipated growth.

While most union affiliates are well aware of the issue, some are leading the charge when it comes to finding a solution. The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701 is one of these. Headquartered in Gladstone, Ore., since 1918, Local 701 represents heavy equipment operators, heavy duty repairers, technical engineers, and stationary engineers in Oregon and Southwest Washington. IUOE 701's 4,200 operators and stationary engineers are regularly dispatched onto contracts worth millions of dollars.

Nelda Wilson, assistant business manager for Local 701, has taken both a personal and professional interest in her industry's apprenticeship outreach. In the industry for nearly 30 years and with Local 701 for the past 27, Wilson has commitment to her trade that runs deep. As a former apprentice and journeyman, Wilson understands the importance of the trade.

"College isn't for everyone, and our program is a viable alternative," Wilson said. "Post-secondary education apprenticeship is Oregon's best education value. Where else can you spend four to six years going through a paid program and come out with no student loans?"

Fortunately, Wilson's passion is shared by many of her Operating Engineers peers. Quint Rahberger, coordinator of the Operating Engineers Training Center in Eugene, Ore., is another strong proponent of apprenticeship outreach. Rahberger's mentoring skills come naturally. His effective style is based on a genuine interest in helping to open the minds of those who may lack direction or simply be uninformed about the true benefits a life in the trade may offer.

"The intangible rewards the trade offers are not always obvious. Many of our operators experience tremendous pride when they drive by completed projects and are compelled to share stories of their experiences with their kids, grandkids and anyone else within range," Rahberger said. "The rewards can be timeless, these historical buildings and landmarks are around for many generations and are the legacy of their lives."

Consistent Interaction

So what exactly is the Operating Engineers Local 701 doing to make a real impact on its apprenticeship outreach? The answer is best seen through its unified message, a commitment to local outreach, and an investment into various advertising mediums such as radio and print as well as a number of other sponsorships and public relations activities that enable the union to have consistent interaction within the labor force. The training center encourages candid feedback from program graduates. Information they learn is contributing to a refinement of its outreach efforts.

Events that aim to raise high school students' awareness about career opportunities in the construction trades have been successful. Instructional and interactive demonstrations such as the one held at Roosevelt High School in April drew a better than expected group. With assistance from Campbell Crane, students were given an opportunity to operate a 40-ton crane. The "cool factor" jumped even more when students learned that a career as an operating engineer can pay up to $29 per hour, or about $60,000 per year. This type of outreach to high schools is especially imperative as school systems have cut trades and shop classes due to ongoing budget cuts.

In 2003, Local 701's Jim O'Connor and Nelda Wilson took a leading role in negotiating the Project Apprenticeship Agreement.

Among the terms, the partners have agreed to a goal of 35-percent women and people of color employed on a project-by-project basis in Portland's South Waterfront by the year 2014. Because the build-out of the South Waterfront project would span eight years and provide many of the hours needed to complete an apprenticeship program, there would be many opportunities for apprentices to start their apprenticeship and to work through their entire apprenticeship program and still remain on the job as journey workers.

Efforts to increase diversity in the construction industry are also on the rise. Wilson serves on the executive board for the Construction Apprenticeship and Workforce Solutions Inc. Members of CAWS, which was formed in 2005, share the common goal of increasing, on a sustained and long-term basis, the number of skilled women and people of color in the construction trades in the Portland metropolitan area. They also strive to improve the image of the construction trades as a viable career. In May 2006, CAWS contractors adopted a "best practices policy." The goal was to increase the number of apprentice hours worked each year by 5 percent to 10 percent; to reach a goal of 20 percent, and to provide jobs to a diverse workforce including women and people of color for all jobs, private and public.

Local 701's outreach to the Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good is yet one more example of the local's holistic approach. MACG is a broad-based organization of religious congregations, labor union locals and community-based organizations. It is driven by the belief that these types of mediating institutions hold the key to mending and reweaving the social fabric essential for strong families and healthy communities.

While other industries are losing their highly skilled workforce, Local 701 is working hard to stabilize its membership, and apprenticeship just makes good business sense. The Operating Engineers realize that big changes won't happen overnight and they are certainly demonstrating that they are more than talking the talk. They plan to continue with their enhanced outreach efforts. A key message they continually reiterate is there are great career opportunities in construction. At the end of the day, it's the community who wins.

Author Information
Shelley Parker is a senior account manager at Pac/West Communications.