Dan Silverthorn is executive director of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, and current chairman of the HOI United Way fund-raising campaign.
He was born January 16, 1945, in Winterset, Iowa. His father was a farmer and union carpenter who moved the family to Branson, Mo., in 1954, where he worked on the construction of the Table Rock Dam. Silverthorn’s mother owned and operated a restaurant. The family moved back to the Iowa farm in 1958.
He graduated from Winterset High School in May 1963 and married in June, then moved to California to work in construction and the lumber industry.
In 1965, he moved back to Winterset, and started working for an Iowa-based construction company in Des Moines. He was promoted to construction superintendent in 1967 and relocated to the Peoria area. In 1985, he was promoted to vice president and branch manager of the Peoria office.
In 1990, after 25 years, Silverthorn left Allied Construction Services, Inc. and started a consulting company working with auto dealers.
He was hired as the associate director of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council in July, 1992. The executive director of the Council retired in 1999, and he assumed that position.
Tell us about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I suppose you would say I have a fairly diverse background. I was an Iowa boy who did not want to work on the farm. In my childhood, my father traveled around the state working as a carpenter, so my two brothers and I did most of the farm work. Much of the farmland was rented to other farmers so our duties were not that much.
When I was old enough to drive a car, I spent as much time in town as possible. I was not a very good student and had no desire to go to college; therefore, in my mind, the only thing left to do was get married and find a good job. Young people were very lucky in the early 60s. Jobs were plentiful, and if you were willing to work, you had little trouble finding a job. I chose to move to California because I thought I could get rich there. Little did I know. Because of my experience working with my father on carpenter projects, I went to work for a southern California contractor and have been involved in the union construction industry for 38 years. During that time, I worked in both labor and management positions.
I have one brother who is a carpenter in Iowa, and both of my sons are carpenters who work as superintendents for local construction companies. My wife Nancy and I have been married six years, and all of our four children and nine grandchildren live in central Illinois.
You began your career as a carpenter apprentice in 1963 in southern California. How did the training you received differ from a carpenter apprentice program today?
The contractor I started with in southern California was a residential contractor and did not offer in-class training. All training was on-the-job. Over the years, that has changed. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters International Union requires all non-skilled carpenters to have four years of apprenticeship training. This program is approved by the Federal Bureau of Apprenticeship Training.
All applicants must have a high school diploma, attend classroom training and work a set amount of hours per year to advance to the next level. Apprentice carpenters start at 40 percent of the pay level of a journeyman carpenter. To enter the program, they have to pass a test to determine their levels of reading, writing, math, and communication skills.
Men and women who have previous carpenter experience are tested to determine the level of skill and, in many cases, are required to enter the apprenticeship program at a second, third, or fourth year level.
When a carpenter graduates from the program, they have had training in all segments of construction work carpenters perform.
What is the career path for carpenters today? How are carpenters recruited?
First of all, they will have to decide if they want to join the union and enter an apprenticeship program. Since my dad, both of his brothers, my brother, both of my sons, and I are union carpenters, I believe that is the best career path.
The training, wages, health and retirement benefits are superior. We are very interested in young people who want a career, not just a job.
Representatives from the building trades unions work with local and state workforce development boards, education to career partnerships, and local high schools to promote careers in the construction trades.
In the carpenters’ case, anyone interested in being a carpenter applies at the local apprenticeship school, and are put on a list.
If there is a need for new apprentices at that time, they will be tested. If they pass the entry test, they will be sent out to a contractor. They also can solicit union contractors for jobs and enter the program that way.
Once a carpenter becomes a journeyman, he can travel anywhere in the U.S. and Canada to work at the trade. They also can advance to foreman, general foreman or superintendent if desired. Many of the contractors in construction today started as apprentices.
Is there a difference in training, work ethic, etc. in carpenters trained in different parts of the country? How so?
As in any segment of the workforce, there are different work ethics in our country, depending on where you live. I have traveled and worked in many parts of the U.S., and I am convinced we have the most productive workforce in the nation right here in central Illinois.
The training offered by the carpenters is standard throughout North America.
In some areas, apprentices still go to school at night and on weekends to get their classroom training. We are fortunate to have a daytime school in central Illinois. The Mid Central Illinois Regional Council of Carpenters covers 43 counties and has a training facility in Pekin.
If an apprentice belongs to a union located within the Council’s region, they are required to go to school one week each quarter per year of their apprenticeship. The school has a hotel located at the facility, and if an apprentice lives more than 50 miles away from the site, they are allowed to stay. Between the day school and on-the-job hours worked, an apprentice receives high-quality training.
What skills and/or experience are important for today’s carpenter?
Any skills or experience would be helpful, but many young people today have not been exposed to construction work. Most of us old timers come from farms or small communities where we had an opportunity to work manual labor jobs. Also, until recent years, most school districts offered manual arts or technical training shop classes. I believe eliminating these classes for high school students hurt the construction industry by not exposing students to careers other than those requiring a four-year college degree.
Because of the lack of knowledge people have of construction, it is difficult to recruit into the trades. Also, many times when a high school counselor has problems with a student, they push them towards a construction career. This may not work out because they lack the aptitude or desire to become an apprentice.
Talk about your experience managing a 300-head cattle farm.
I have always been intrigued with the idea of being a cattle farmer. When I was visiting my parents in 1983, I told my dad what I wanted to do and asked him to be the farm manager. He agreed, and within a short time, I had a cattle farm in southern Missouri.
For the first four years I owned it, I would leave work Friday evenings, drive 6 1/2 hours to the farm, work two 14 to16 hour days and be back at work by 8 a.m., Monday mornings. We started with no cattle and grew to a cow/calf operation that sold as many as 120, 450-pound calves to cattle feeders each year.
After a few years I was able to cut back my trips but still was there at least once a month. It was a wonderful experience, but as my dad aged and my career changed, it was necessary to sell the operation. I still have some property in Missouri and may retire there.
What first brought you to central Illinois? What were your first impressions? Today?
In 1967 I was working as an assistant superintendent for a construction company in Des Moines, Iowa. They opened an office in Peoria and asked if I would move there to oversee the construction department.
It was a good opportunity for me to advance my career, and I accepted the offer.
At that time, Peoria looked much different. The riverfront was bad; many of the buildings were run down; and Peoria had not yet started the downtown renovation.
The economy was good, and Caterpillar, Cilco, Keystone and many of the universities and colleges in central Illinois were building. The recession of the 1980s ended that, and many of the tradespeople had to travel to stay employed. It was during that time Peoria started to change. Becker’s developments downtown and Town Centers I and II in East Peoria changed the look of our community.
This has continued with the improvement of the Riverfront and the EastPort Marina. I am very proud to tell people I live in Peoria.
Tell us about the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council. How long in existence, purpose, membership, etc.
First, let me explain what a Building Trades Council is. In 1908, what was then the predecessor to the AFL-CIO decided to create the Building Trades Department, mandating that all construction trade unions join a Building Trades Council in their area.
The West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council started with Peoria and Tazewell Counties and now includes Adams, Brown, Fulton, Hancock, Marshall, Mason, McDonough, Pike, Schuyler, Stark, and Woodford Counties.
The Council represents all 15 International Unions in its jurisdiction, which includes 19 different crafts, 63 local union offices and a membership of 15,000. The Council is made up of elected officers and delegates from these unions.
The Council has a full-time staff of six people, which includes The LABOR Paper. We hold weekly meetings with our delegates, and it is the responsibility of the Council to promote union construction within our jurisdiction.
I spend most of my time working with developers and contractors. We are involved with a wide variety of committees, workforce development boards, and work with elected officials to promote legislation that protects our members. Many of our members are involved in community affairs, and I believe we have done very well to improve the image of construction unions in our area.
How has the purpose and membership of the union changed over the years? Do you see it changing in the future? How so?
The purpose of a Building Trades union is to give their members a voice in the work place; help them attain a decent standard of living which includes health care and retirement benefits; and also to train them with the best skills programs available. Other than an increased emphasis on training and adapting to new technology, the purpose has not changed.
Most of the building trades leaders I work with understand the importance of organizing and continued training of their as fortunate. It is only right that I give back my time and talents to help them.
I’m very proud of the union members who donate their money to local charities and their time to Christmas in April, Habitat for Humanity, and many other organizations. We may be on different sides on some issues, but we can still work together for the betterment of everyone in our community.
You are the first union executive director to chair the HOI United Way campaign. Talk about this year’s campaign.
In 1983, Ed Messmore, business manager for Steamfitters Local 353, agreed to chair the campaign but took a position with his International Union in Washington, D.C., and relocated before the campaign started. I am very honored that the leadership of the HOI United Way (HOIUW) has the confidence in me to chair this very important campaign.
I have been very lucky to recruit an outstanding campaign committee that will guarantee a great campaign. Also, Michael Stephan, who is in his second year as HOIUW executive director, has extensive experience in fundraising and places a strong emphasis on expanding the number of new donors. Last year, 65 new companies participated in the campaign. This year Caterpillar, CEFCU, and Methodist Hospital will sponsor a $165,000 matching challenge grant. Nine companies loaned employees to the campaign. They will be campaign ambassadors and work with the campaign volunteers.
The Pace Setter program is much larger this year and will give the campaign an early start. Also, this year all six local television stations will air a 30-minute simulcast showcasing the United Way campaign. I have made corporate calls on 25 of the top companies, and although they all agree this is going to be a flat year economically, they feel confident they will have successful employee campaigns.
How is the funding process different than in years past?
Three years ago a strategic planning committee of company CEOs, community volunteers and agency executives was formed to develop a new method of fund distribution to the HOIUW member agencies. In the past, agencies were funded on an as-needed basis. The new process funds programs on an outcomes basis. It is the belief of the planning committee and the board of directors that this process makes the HOIUW more responsible to the community and our donors.
Has the new granting process helped or hurt donations the past couple of years?
To help the HOIUW agencies adjust, the new plan has the option to be implemented over five years. It was initiated in 2000 with 25 percent of funding for youth programs to be distributed based on program outcomes. This year, 50 percent of all program funding for the HOIUW agencies will come under the new funding process. To date, the response has been good from our donors, and the committee leaders have been very positive in the comments regarding the new fund process.
What would you like to achieve in this year’s campaign? How will you do that?
The object of any fundraising campaign is to raise as much money as possible, and I am totally committed to do what it takes to reach our goal.
With the help of an outstanding United Way staff, a terrific campaign committee, and the support of a very giving community, I am certain we will reach the campaign goal. IBI