Senator Tina Smith got to dig up some dirt in an excavator as part of her visit to the Local 49 Training Center in Hinckley, on Friday, April 13. While that was the fun part of her tour, Smith also discussed the importance of the center’s apprenticeship training programs with Local 49 officials of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
The Local 49ers Training Center has two main programs: the Highway Heavy or Dirtside program and the Crane program. The Highway Heavy program is a shorter course that requires 4,000 hours on the job and 288 hours completed at the training facility to graduate. The Crane program is completed after 8,000 hours on the job and 576 hours at the center. During the first year of this program, apprentices will spend a month at the training center and another two weeks during their second year. In both programs, apprentices start with a pay that is 70 percent of a traditional journeyman’s pay. For every 1,000 hours earned in the highway heavy program, apprentices will receive a bump in pay, while apprentices in the crane program will get the pay bump every 2,000 hours.
Additionally, these programs have classes that pre-apprentices may take. Pre-apprentices take a five-week (Highway Heavy) or a four-week (Crane) course to understand the safety protocols, vehicles and work associated with the trade. This is meant to make them more hireable as apprentices for contractors. After they finish these courses, they can go out and solicit their own work. They are required to find a contractor to sponsor them into the apprentice program.
An apprentice comes into the program with a basic knowledge of the trades and works his way to a journeyman level by completing training at the center and learning on the job with a contractor. To be considered for apprenticeship through the training center, hopefuls must have their high school diploma or GED, be 18 years or older, have a driver's license and must pass the gatekeepers test with a 70 percent or better. The test is ninth grade level reading comprehension and arithmetic. It also tests whether or not a candidate can read a tape measure.
Those who pass the test will then be vetted through an interview process to fill available apprenticeship slots. While there are only so many slots each year, Steve Thuy, apprenticeship coordinator for the center, said, “If you want in bad enough, eventually you will get in. I can’t say it will be tomorrow, if it will be a month from now, or a year from now, you know. But if you want in bad enough you will get in.”
Since most apprentices come from the tri-state area, while training at the center, they will be reimbursed for mileage. Room and board is not covered, but there are multiple nearby hotels for trainees to stay during their training. Apprentices will also receive $15 per day towards meals. During the apprenticeship, classes at the center range from a week to a month in length.
One of the two main discussions of the meeting was about the opportunity these apprenticeship programs offer to veterans. Depending on the individual’s experience in the military, veterans can get credit for their service. They can receive up to 2,000 hours in credits if they can provide documentation of their experience. These credits can place a veteran into their second or third year of the apprenticeship program at the start. Previously it was difficult to spread this information and fill slots with military veterans. A recent bill has changed that.
About a year ago, in an attempt to bring more veterans into Minnesota’s trades, the 49ers brought a bill to the Minnesota State Legislature to get funds to hire a “Helmets to Hardhats” coordinator. They were successful and now have a full time veteran recruiter for their center. Smith and her team played a part in the success of this bill while she was still lieutenant governor of Minnesota. Senator Smith commented on the importance of this role, “This is a big challenge, I think, helping people who are trying to figure out what kind of work they want to do, (and) understand what the opportunity is.” The success of this bill is already generating more trades job placements for veterans. The Local 49 officials mentioned that other states have already been asking for their bill write up.
The remaining discussion was about the importance of introducing and familiarizing young students with the trades. “One of the things I am really interested in is how to get people that are in high school or even younger thinking about what their opportunities are for jobs that they can do,” said Smith. “I've been having a lot of these conversations and everyone is saying, ‘Boy you really need to get people to start thinking about it for sure in high school but even in middle school.’”
As a response, the officials explained the trades program, “Construct Tomorrow.” The program is responsible for hosting an event where high school students attend, and all the trades are there. It is a hands-on event including simulators to give students a feel for the equipment they will potentially be working with.
The trade industry has been slowly overcoming the stigma of needing a four-year degree to be successful. It has been a challenge for the trades to gain proper access to schools and high school job fairs due to this stigma. Many high schools have even cut shop classes out of their curriculum which had previously been a link to the trades. Smith commented that because schools worry how parents judge them, it just ends up shutting down opportunities.
The Local 49 officials pointed out that for someone coming out of high school looking to avoid debt, the trades could be a viable option. The officials also mentioned that with a program like the 49ers apprenticeship, there is no student debt. When one finishes the program, that's it; they move on to a full time job.
Some schools are starting to open up to the trades and have even tried to get their shop classes back. The Local 49 officials have been working with a committee in Anoka to give trades jobs a presence in their high school. Senator Smith has a goal to give high schoolers and middle schoolers more exposure to the trades. She said, “I just don’t see (schools with) the same level of investment (in trades). If there is not a good vo-tech program in the high school, then maybe that high school can’t pull it together because they don’t have the same property tax base (as other schools). Does that child have the same opportunity? I don’t know that they do.”
While Smith will be fighting to give trades jobs more of a presence in Minnesota schools, she plans to continue the good fight in Washington, D.C.