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Kansas City, Mo., Program Trains Workers for Green Economy

In recent years, union members and employers alike have watched the electrical industry move toward renewable energy, data storage, telecom technology and electrification, among other specialties.

(TNS) — The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ union hall in south Kansas City is a squat brick building tucked by I-435 east of Swope Park. A closer look reveals four electric car chargers lining the edge of the parking lot, two vertical wind turbines spinning next to the driveway and a roof covered in solar panels gleaming out from behind a row of pine trees.

These high-tech features were installed by the union’s apprentice electricians fine-tuning their skills on their way to becoming ‘journeymen’: fully qualified experts in a trade specialty who can do business anywhere in the country.

The adjacent Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center currently has over 500 students training for this title, which comes with union representation and benefits, reliably high pay and a leg up in the ever-expanding electrical infrastructure industry.

“We try to prepare them for everything,” training director Shon Lee told The Star. “We follow where the industry goes… we want to be the best.”

In recent years, union members and employers alike have watched the electrical industry move toward renewable energy, data storage, telecom technology and electrification, among other specialties. Electrification is a big piece of the environmental movement, as it allows activities from transportation to heating and cooking to be run on renewable energy rather than on fossil fuels like oil, gasoline and natural gas.

The city’s new Climate Protection and Resiliency Plan encourages a push toward electrification, including expanding the city’s solar energy infrastructure and ensuring new buildings are wired for all-electric appliances. These initiatives will require skilled electricians.

Life as an apprentice

Aspiring electrician Jacob King’s life is changing. At 24 years old, he just welcomed a baby girl into the world and is in the first of his five years as an apprentice at the center. While King has a degree in accounting from the University of Central Missouri, he decided to pursue electrical work after finding his office job to be underwhelming.

“I just didn’t like sitting in an office all day at a computer,” he said.

Most of King’s days are now spent on a construction site, where he says he enjoys working with his hands and picking up skills from more seasoned electricians.

In addition to working on site, he spends two 8-hour days each month in classes at the center, learning skills from bending thin conduit pipes to rigging up electrical wiring, using digital 3D blueprint software and installing solar panels.

“Electric requires you to use your brain a little bit more than some of the other trades, and I like doing that,” King said. “I definitely use whatever I learn to do here in the field.”

Apprentices aren’t paid for their days in the classroom, but their employers have an agreement with the union to pay apprentices 5% more to make up for their time off the clock.

King now makes around $23 an hour on the construction site, up from $21.65 before he joined the program. While he says that the increase doesn’t quite make up for his classroom time, the benefits of the program are well worth the roughly $20 per month he misses out on.

“It does take five years, but you get wage increases every year,” he said. “I knew I’d take a pay cut to come out here and do this. But in the long run… journeyman electricians are making $47 an hour.”

In the meantime, he added, his infant daughter is already enjoying the full benefits of his union health insurance.

An electric future

The union’s apprentice class is currently around 500 strong — but leaders expect that number to balloon to 700 or 800 in the coming years.

This optimism is due in part to a significant shift towards electrification of homes, businesses and other institutions. It’s a trend reflected everywhere from Kansas City’s climate plan to the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which includes major funding for tax credits and rebates that incentivize switching home and vehicle energy to electricity.

“When we talk about transforming our electric system, it involves building terawatts of new electric generation capacity and likely building a significant amount of new transmission and distribution lines,” said Alejandro Moreno, the U.S. Department of Energy’s acting assistant secretary for renewable power. “That future, at those metrics, involves a lot of electricians.”

Moreno added that part of that commitment involves ensuring that jobs in the electric industry pay well, have good benefits and involve opportunities for growth and career advancement.

“From the department’s perspective, we recognize that the clean energy transition is as much as anything a clean jobs transition,” he said. “Unions like this are leading the way in giving Americans the skills to be part of the energy workforce of the future.”

Equity in electricity

Electrical work is a historically male-dominated industry, but journeyman electrician and center instructor Dianna King (no relation to student Jacob King) said that the number of female apprentices is growing.

“We’re starting to get more young women,” she told The Star. “Our local is starting a women’s committee… I would like to see us more in the schools so school-age girls can actually see there are young women getting into the trades.”

King added that equity guidelines at many job sites cause employers to seek out female electricians and other tradespeople. For example, she said that the new KCI terminal has a stated goal of 3% women in its construction workforce. The local union has around 10%.

“This last year, we (took) the largest female class we’ve ever taken,” said Bo Moreno, the union’s business manager — no relation to Alejandro Moreno, who works for the federal Department of Energy. “They’re really highly motivated, highly skilled, women that are applying.”

While several of the women who joined this year’s class have since dropped out of the program, Moreno remains hopeful that the apprenticeship can retain more diverse students in the future.

“Once they get in the program, we do everything we can, male or female, to hold on to that individual,” he said. “There’s a reason they made it into our program. We thought they were a prime applicant to get into this, and we thought they’re going to make a good wireman someday, so we want to do everything we can to retain that person.”

© 2022 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.