More and more buildings are springing up around Puget Sound, but the skilled workers who build and maintain them are nearing retirement and the next generation may not be prepared to take their places.
Acceptance into training programs for trade professions such as electrician, requires a high school diploma or equivalent. But Washington state ranks 38th for high school graduation rates, at 78 percent, and lower for low-income students and minorities. And the unemployment rate for youth is double the rate for people 25 and older, according to Washington’s Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI).
Yet at the same time, demand for electricians is expected to grow much faster than average, at 14 percent between 2014 and 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In greater Seattle, the biggest jobs growth in 2015 was in construction, according to a February 2016 presentation by the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Transportation Planning Board. PSRC also notes that from 2010 to 2015 construction ranked second in jobs growth in the region, exceeded only by that of the digital economy, and most new residents of the region are moving here from elsewhere in Washington.
It all adds up to ample opportunity for Washingtonians who may not be geared to white collar work. If they’re prepared, and dialed in to the possibilities.
That’s where Puget Sound Electrical Journeyman Apprenticeship Training Committee (PSEJATC) comes in. It partners with South Seattle College to train electricians. Chris Reigelsperger, director of services at the Puget Sound chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), said it’s the largest apprenticeship program north of San Francisco and west of Minneapolis. NECA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 46 run the program together.
The program has about 700 students enrolled, who take courses and work four to five days a week as they gain journeyman certification. There are three programs to choose from, which take three to five years to complete.
“You see these people go from not having any opportunities at the beginning of the program, to graduating in three or five years and then going out as an incredibly skilled electrician and making an incredible wage, working on some of the coolest projects in the area,” Reigelsperger said.
Earnings Of Up To $45 An Hour, After Graduation
Apprentices earn $14 to $18 an hour plus benefits, depending on if they’re part of the residential, low voltage or construction/commercial programs, according to IBEW 46 business manager Jim Tosh. Their books and tools are paid for during the first year. If they specialize in the five-year inside wireman construction program, journeymen can earn as much as $45 an hour when they complete their training.
“They’re not in debt when they graduate from us,” Tosh said.
Reigelsperger said they’re seeing a record amount of applications currently, interviewing 40 to 60 candidates per month.
But they’d like to see more applications from some groups.
Just two percent of electricians are women, according to 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Looking For More High-School Grads And Women
Tosh said it’s a priority to build awareness that women, who may not grow up seeing construction as a career option, can be electricians and do well in the field.
“Women deserve as much of an opportunity to earn a living for their family as men do,” he said.
The program shares a building with Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Employment for Women, which helps candidates who may not have a background in construction prepare for the application process.
NECA Puget Sound Executive Director Barry Sherman said it’s also difficult to recruit high school students, who are encouraged to go to college and tend to overlook the skilled trades as career options.
“It seems almost impossible to get them to look at the construction trades, especially our program,” Sherman said.
Another targeted group is veterans. The program offers an accelerated track for for them called Veterans In Construction Electrical (VICE).
Trained, Skilled Workers In High Demand
A variety of employers are looking for trained skilled workers. Shipbuilding company Vigor Industrial told KING 5 recently that it plans to hire 50 to 80 welders in the next few months and is “desperate” to get people trained. Also in partnership with South Seattle College, the company has an 8,000 square foot “classroom in a shipyard” to teach a new generation of welders.
Candidates for the Puget Sound Electrical Apprenticeship programs need to have a high school diploma or GED, pass a math exam or show evidence of related coursework and possess a driver’s license. Applicants also undergo an aptitude assessment and interview process. Sherman said they need to show they’re prepared to “be outside on a 40 story building in Seattle weather and handle it.”
‘There Are So Many Avenues You Can Go’
Apprentices say the training has put them on track to successful careers.
A 2014 case study by Skill Up Washington quoted a VICE graduate named Daryl, who previously worked with field artillery at Joint-Base Lewis McChord: “The wages are good. The retirement plan is good and you can’t beat the benefits. And it’s about having a career, not just being a grunt. There are so many avenues you can go. It’s not just pulling a wire and putting in a light switch.”
“The hours are long, but you’re learning new stuff every day,” said Jeffrey Nuehausen, a former Coast Guard member, in a video profile of the VICE program.
Sherman estimated that the program accepts a quarter to a third of applicants. If they’re not accepted, the program can assist prospective apprentices in obtaining some job experience before reapplying.
He said the program’s selectivity contributes to a low attrition rate and successful graduates. Reigelsperger said some who completed the program have gone on to begin their own contractor businesses.
“If you’re starting out at the bottom there’s almost no such thing as a ceiling in our industry,” he said.