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Building the base of skilled workers in Indian Country
By Len Shindel, IBEW Communications Specialist, Washington, D.C.

26 July 2010

      National percentages for measuring economic anguish or progress hold scant meaning in Indian Country. Times have always been tough and have only gotten worse during the most recent recession, with nearly half of the workforce jobless on some reservations.

Kenneth Clark, right, talks with Jordan Goulet (Turtle Mountain) about a circuit.

      With $400 billion of dollars of potential construction and significant energy development foreseen on 55 million acres of reservation lands—coupled with significant federal stimulus dollars coming in—the question is: Who will do the work?

      Will off-reservation contractors devour federal tax dollars leaving no skilled workers behind? Or will fresh opportunities help to build a wider base of skilled union construction hands and contractors in Indian Country?

Partnership for Training

      A recently-concluded six-week pre-apprenticeship program for 24 Native Americans at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., holds the promise of growing the work force of indigenous, IBEW electricians on reservations and in nearby towns.

      IBEW’s Dakota’s JATC provided opportunities for hands-on electrical work, supplementing classroom time.

      The intensive training program was sponsored by the IBEW, the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, the National Electrical Contractors Association and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development.

      The parties agreed to house, educate and identify job opportunities for successful graduates and to address the need for qualified skilled workers on and off the reservations. All direct costs of the program were covered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

      Classes, taught by IBEW instructors, began June 14 and concluded July 30. All applicants were age 18 or over and were high school graduates or GED-certified. All were administered drug tests, physical and background checks and agreed to relocate, if necessary, for training after completing their classes.

David Carroll

      “It’s the greatest opportunity I have had in years,” said David Carroll, 30, who spent evenings collaborating with his fellow students.

      Carroll, a Choctaw from Tahlequah, Okla., had managed warehouses, built computers and worked as a welder, but saw work dry up and his skills devalued.

      “In today’s economy, without training, you can make more at a convenience store than welding,” he said.

Union Support

      In a letter to IBEW business managers and NECA chapter managers, International President Edwin D. Hill and NECA CEO John Grau urged JATCs to sponsor graduates of the program.

      “Most of [the $400 billion] projects require that a minimum percentage of Native American Indians be represented in the work force makeup,” they said. “The pre-apprenticeship program will hopefully be the first of many efforts to demonstrate our commitment to Native Americans and our willingness to ensure that they benefit directly from this construction investment.”

      The U.S. Department of Labor has agreed to permit the direct entry of graduates who have completed 240 hours of government-funded preliminary training into JATCs.

Skilled Workers Needed

      Even though high unemployment persists on many reservations, Lynn Forcia, who heads up the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ division of work force development, said “they still have to import labor because they don’t have skilled workers on site.”

      Forcia, who grew up on the Keweenaw Bay Reservation in Northern Michigan, knows the value of union training and collective bargaining. The daughter of a USW iron ore miner, she said, if someone on the reservation is working a minimum-wage job and their car breaks down, they end up coming to the Bureau’s social service office. Devoting federal dollars to gainful employment would be a much better choice. Native Americans, she said, “need opportunities to move beyond low-pay and low-skill jobs.”

      In charge of how federal stimulus funds are awarded at the BIA, Forcia sees progress when unions, the bureau, and tribal colleges link resources. “Stimulus monies have worked in Indian country,” said Forcia. From energy auditors to brick masons and electricians, jobs are opening up.

United Tribes

      “We had a great bunch of students in the electrical program,” said Barbara Schmitt, director of economic development at United Tribes, one of the nation’s three dozen tribal/community colleges. Schmitt helped administer a prior 18-week program for energy auditors with the Plumbers and Pipefitters.

      Before classes began, students attended three days of orientation and life skills training and were free to use all facilities at the college that offers mostly two-year programs for students from 72 different tribes across the country.

      Bowling, swimming and attending a July 4 rodeo together, helped pre-apprentices become a tighter group, leading to success as they mentored each other in study groups at night.

      “We’re hoping that students go back home and spread the word about the program,” says Schmitt, who has two brothers-in-law in the IBEW.

Bob Wolfe

New Opportunities

      “The tribal program gives IBEW and NECA an opportunity to open up work that has never been ours, while giving Indian workers a skill to make sure that we have a good, trained work force for future projects,” said Bob Wolfe, director of the Dakotas Electrical JATC.

      After learning about safety codes, DC theory and pipe bending, said Wolfe, participants “have the skills to hit the ground running.”

      Benefits could broadcast widely with increasing numbers of employed and skilled workers in Indian Country. In testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs, the National Congress of American Indians cites the example of a stimulus-funded elder housing project that employed tribal members on the Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi.

      “Workers returned to the community filling churches, attending sports programs for their children and frequenting local businesses,” said the NCAI.

      A similar stimulus-funded elementary school construction project on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona provided more opportunities for tribal members, including parents of the school’s students to work close to home. The school’s superintendent expects test scores to improve because of improved parental involvement.

Second Chance

      Living as an artist and construction worker on the Isleta Pueblo, near Albuquerque, N.M., Kenneth Clark was used to temporary periods without work. But when the residential housing market collapsed in 2008, Clark’s work as a tile-setter dried up. A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, Clark needed a more reliable stream of income than the small return from his photography and print-making. He had a maintenance job lined up at the reservation’s casino, but wanted something more.

      On a visit to the Isleta tribal office, Clark, part Muskogee, Creek and Tlingit, saw a flier for a new Native American electrical pre-apprenticeship program kicking off in June in North Dakota. The son of a retired San Jose, Calif., Local 332 journeyman inside wireman, Clark, 44, had just two weeks to round up his college transcript and other documents. He sucked up his fears about algebra, applied and was accepted.

      In July, Clark, graduated from the pre-apprenticeship program.

      “My dad was a union man for 30 years,” he said. “He supported a wife and four kids and made a good living. I hope this is my second chance to help support my wife and daughter.

Opening a Door for Others

Christina Jimerson

      Christina Jimerson had performed dozens of jobs—from running chips to working in the smoke shop—during seven years of work in the Seneca’s Cattaraugus Reservation casinos and bingo houses in Gowanda, N.Y. But she always took special interest watching technicians fix slot machines. She wished that she had the skills to join them.

      Then, Jimerson saw an ad in the tribal newspaper for an electrical pre-apprenticeship program in North Dakota and said, “I figured I would give it a try.”

      “I’m blessed that I was one of only 24 picked for the program,” said Jimerson, 33.

      Most of her fellow students had sacrificed like she had to get there, leaving children and families behind. But, Jimerson, whose grandfather was a union welder, says it was worth it.

      “We had awesome instructors who would stay until midnight just to help us learn if we asked them. And I loved the fact that students from so many different tribes had each others’ backs. That’s what the union is all about.”

      Grateful for a program that provided everything from tools, to work clothes, and—most of all—encouragement, Jimerson basks in the pride of her family.

      “Twenty-four of us have opened a door that, hopefully, many others will walk through.”


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