The skilled trades have a long, proud history in the Peoria area. iBi sat down with four area leaders to discuss the state of unions, labor/management relations, area schools, state and federal legislation, and the challenge of recruiting a qualified workforce for the future.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union #34
I am business manager and financial secretary of the IBEW Local 34, representing approximately 1,100 construction, residential, telecommunications and motor shop members in 17 counties in west-central Illinois. My duties are to negotiate and enforce contracts for membership, serve as a trustee on members’ health and welfare plans, pensions, and annuity plans, and represent members’ political and community interests and rights under contracts and applicable laws.
Tri-County Construction Labor-Management Council
I have been executive director of TRICON for the last 10 years, helping to facilitate cooperation between labor and management in union construction, giving them opportunities to network and build relationships. Together, the industry addresses mutual concerns and ensures that projects are built with the highest quality, on time and within budget. TRICON programs and activities focus on workforce development, safety, public relations, business development and in recent years, green building.
West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council
I am executive director of the WCIBCTC, which represents all of the building trades unions in 13 counties in west-central Illinois. Located within this jurisdiction are 49 local union offices representing 15 international building trades crafts and over 16,000 members. The building trades councils wear many hats, but they all share a mission to create harmony among the trades and strength through unity.
Greater Peoria Contractors and Suppliers Association
I am executive director of the GPCSA. I administer the office staff, negotiate trade contracts for our members and act as a liaison between our members and the trade unions. I also represent the association on various labor boards and community/state committees and boards.
Describe the state of the skilled trades in central Illinois today.
Mike Everett: The skilled trades are very fortunate to have good market share in an economy that is certainly tough, but a lot better than many states around us. We also have great potential because we have excellent labor-management relations, and our local labor leaders are very active in our communities. We are extremely politically active, and working with business in our area, we effectively cover both sides of the political aisle in the best interest of our community.
Ginger Johnson: Central Illinois is fortunate to have a strong union construction climate. This strength comes from the ability of skilled trades to work collaboratively across trade unions and with contractors; from top-notch apprenticeship and ongoing training programs; from a “safety-first” work environment; and from a commitment to superior craftsmanship. Because of the collaborative nature of our local union construction industry, when issues do arise, the industry works together to come up with solutions that benefit everyone.
The skilled trades take great pride in their training and craftsmanship. Central Illinois employs about 6,000 skilled trades workers in 15 different construction crafts—collectively, union construction is one of our largest employers! Many in the community don’t realize how important union construction is to our local economy, and they don’t realize there are many opportunities for lifetime, satisfying careers in the skilled trades.
TRICON recently commissioned Bradley University’s Center for Business and Economic Research to conduct a workforce study of the local union construction industry. The results revealed a critical need for the industry to recruit and train a future workforce. This need can be attributed to several factors, including an aging construction workforce—many of whom will retire in the next five to 10 years, lack of qualifications and skills in the workforce applicant pool, and an increase in new, retrofit and “green” construction work in coming years.
Through TRICON, the local union construction industry has put in place a number of award-winning workforce development programs over the years, but the industry will have to grow these programs and develop new strategies and programs to fill the coming needs for skilled workers.
Dana Oaks: As of now, the contractors are dealing mostly with a well-trained workforce. We do have large concerns about manpower shortages in the near-future, though, an issue on which labor and management are working together to alleviate.
Dan Silverthorn: The building trades have a strong presence in commercial and industrial construction in the Tri-County Area, with less of the market in our western territory. The basic trades have had very little of the residential market since the downturn of the early 1980s. Many of the trades are currently making a strong organizing effort to regain their market share. Due to the current downturn, we have high unemployment numbers, with the mechanical trades affected the most. We hope the $31 billion state capital bill will create a lot of jobs, and we are already seeing jobs with the federal stimulus money.
What is the current state of labor/management relations in central Illinois? Are there still lingering effects from the Cat/UAW battles of the early ‘90s?
Everett: Labor/management relations are excellent in central Illinois within the building trades. Relations are strained due to the economy and job loss at Caterpillar/UAW, but they are still 1,000 percent better than the 1980s. Many of the public and service unions have strained relations with their counterparts for the same reasons.
Johnson: Again, we are fortunate to have a union construction industry that works together. TRICON was instrumental in bringing labor and management together in the ‘80s to build relationships in light of a tight economy and friction between Cat/UAW. Those relationships continue today, and as a result, there hasn’t been an all-out strike in the industry since the ‘70s.
Of course, we are again at a tough time with pressure from a struggling economy and increasing healthcare costs. We have watched too often the demise of union construction and the skilled trades in other areas of the country where labor-management cooperation—and labor-labor cooperation—is not a priority. It is more important than ever for our local industry to stick together and leverage the good relationships we have built over many years. Together, we’ll ride out these tough times and continue providing central Illinois with good jobs and quality construction projects.
Oaks: I can only speak from the construction industry side, but I am very encouraged with the cooperation I have witnessed between labor and management. For the most part, I believe there is a realization that we are all in this together, and it takes cooperation on both sides to continue to allow growth to occur in this area.
Silverthorn: In the mid-1980s, I was working in management for a local contractor when TRICON was created. I saw firsthand the effect labor relations were having on our community. We were known nationally as a “bad labor town,” and it was not all Cat/UAW—the building trades had its own issues that we needed to work on. TRICON’s mission was to promote labor-management in the local construction industry and improve our image. Not only did we do that, but out of this effort we created multi-craft agreements with our contractors that had same-holiday and shift language. We are recognized as one of the strongest labor-management groups in the state.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40 percent of the skilled labor force will retire in the next five years. Is this trend reflected locally?
Everett: I believe these estimates have suffered a three- to five-year setback because of the economic crisis. There is no doubt in my mind that the majority of our members who would love to retire will be unable to do so. Regardless, the shortage due to retirement or physical inability to work at the trade(s) is coming, and if we can’t provide the skilled workers through local apprenticeships or through union networks nationally, someone will do the work. Everyone needs to remember that Chinese and Irish immigrants initially built America’s railroads. The baby boomer retirement exodus has not yet hit us. As for available jobs and skill sets, right now, I have too many highly skilled people off work locally, and I have access to thousands.
Johnson: Yes, this trend is reflected locally across many trades. In the last 10 years, we have created K-12 workforce development programs to introduce students to opportunities in construction skilled trades. Some programs, like the High School Construction Industry Work-Based Learning Program, are competency-based to give students skills in various trades and help them enter the industry successfully. Other programs focus on younger students, educators, and women and minorities. But these programs, while highly successful, will not be enough.
Additional strategies and programs already in development will need to focus even more on helping K-12 schools bring back career and technical education programs related to construction, recruiting and training young adults out of high school into construction careers, reaching female and minority populations and helping them overcome barriers, partnering with community and educational organizations, and getting the word out to the general public that skilled trades careers are exciting, challenging, well-paid and available for those who are interested and motivated.
Peoria Educational Region For Employment and Career Training (P.E.R.F.E.C.T.), Tazewell County/Area Education For Careers, Workforce Network, Illinois Central College and Bradley University have been invaluable education partners in helping our industry recruit and train future workers.
Oaks: The trend is definitely reflected locally, but it affects certain trades more than others. Bluntly speaking, and this is my opinion, our area schools need to do a better job in preparing students for technical/vocational careers. Not every student is destined for college out of high school, and I think way too much emphasis is put on the college track, and not enough on creating employable skills for its graduates.
Silverthorn: The skill level of many of those testing for apprenticeship training is low. We have been working with District 150 to bring vocational education back into the school system, which they are doing in the Manual restructuring. Also, we are working with other school districts in our jurisdiction to bring our message of lifelong careers in the building trades.
What are some of the current industry trends?
Everett: The trades are struggling to identify qualified apprenticeship applicants and individuals with the extraordinary work ethic required for an entire career (30-40 years) in the trades. We also struggle with a lack of diversity within our ranks.
Johnson: The skilled trades will need to put even more emphasis on recruiting a qualified workforce for the near-future, as workers retire and demand increases. I think this demand for workers is being felt across the country. Construction work cannot be outsourced to other countries—it happens right here. Unfortunately, our educational system has lost support and funding for career and technical (vocational) education in recent years. While some schools have been able to maintain construction programs, most have not. This is unfortunate for those students who would do well in construction careers. It is unfortunate for our industry, as we will need those students to fill the shoes of our retiring workers.
Skilled trades workers are continuously upgrading their skills to meet new demands in the marketplace. The hottest trend in the industry, green building, is prompting building trades unions and their apprenticeship programs to add new green building training classes for their workers. Locally, the trades are working to not only provide this green training in-house, but in partnership with other entities to get workers the skills they need for these emerging technologies.
Oaks: The union leadership is putting emphasis to its members first and foremost that the customer comes first. That all construction trades members need to look and act professional on the jobsite at all times and give the customer the best bang for the buck. It all has to do with pride, quite honestly.
Silverthorn: Due to the recession of the 1980s, all of our local unions lost membership, and very few apprenticeships were taken in to the crafts. This created a large gap in the age of membership. Because of this, we will see a large number of the tradespeople retiring in the next five years. All trades have an entry-level test that applicants must pass to enter apprenticeship training. This is becoming a challenge, as many of the applicants lack math and reading skills and cannot pass the tests. We have been working with educators to fix this problem. Construction technology is ever-changing and it is very important that the trades keep up with all the new trends.
What is the most challenging issue you face?
Everett: Workforce issues…work ethic, reliability and productivity.
Johnson: Ensuring a skilled and qualified workforce in the near and distant future stands out as the most challenging issue facing the entire industry, both labor and management. This is echoed in the responses from industry representatives in the Bradley workforce study. Other challenges faced locally include a decrease in construction work through 2010 (until the economy turns around), pressure from non-local contractors bidding on work in the area, keeping up with demands for green building, and ensuring that future generations of construction leaders realize the importance of maintaining good labor-management cooperation.
Oaks: Our state legislative bodies and trying to get a handle on what they are doing and how it will affect the construction industry in our area. We need to become a more business-friendly state.
Silverthorn: The current downturn has caused a huge challenge for the building trades. At a time when we need to recruit apprentices to replace our retiring members, the jobs are not there for them. We do have more work in central Illinois than other parts of the country, but this makes us attractive to out-of-town builders, many of which are non-union and do not pay prevailing wage rates, making it hard for our contractors to compete. We are fortunate in central Illinois to have a strong, well-managed union contractor base that is very competitive with the non-union sector.
What are your thoughts on the proposed vocational/technical center for District 150? What other efforts are being made locally to address the workforce shortage?
Everett: I’ve been advocating for vocational education in high schools for about 20 years with almost no success. I am personally an example of the old career path that started in industrial arts classes at Richwoods Community High School and ended up graduating a Journeyman Inside Construction Wireman from a four-year (now five), 8,000-hour apprenticeship program.
Johnson: I applaud Manual High School in its restructuring process to bring back career and technical education through a “Business, Industrial and Sustainable Technology” academy or learning community, getting underway this year. All of us in the Peoria area must support this move and provide resources to Manual for it to be successful. TRICON and others in the local construction industry have been involved in restructuring activities. Likewise, Manual/District 150 must be willing to ask for help and engage industry so that learning is relevant and prepares students for entry into skilled trades. This must be a joint project.
Manual is a first step, but there is much more needed. At national and state levels, politicians and administration must recognize once again the need for career and technical education for our youth, recognize that a college degree is not always needed for careers that are rewarding and well-paying.
Oaks: It is a fantastic idea and should be offered at every school from 7th grade on up, quite frankly. As of now, there are too many meetings and jibber-jabbering and posturing going on in regards to it—just get it done.
What has been the impact of the downturn on the skilled trades? How has it been different from the 1980s recession?
Everett: The downturn has certainly been felt here locally, and it has cancelled or delayed a lot of projects, but we are blessed compared to other parts of the country. In the 1980s, my guys couldn’t find any work in the United States. Some of my guys worked out of the area on the road for nearly five years before they were gainfully employed at home. It hasn’t gotten anywhere near as bad as that here, and God willing, never will.
Johnson: Downturns are tough on everyone. Skilled trades are not immune. When work is down, hours for skilled trades workers are down. Construction work inherently cycles with the economy. Many workers learn how to budget for these downturns and survive. Others may need to travel to other areas to find work. But that is one thing advantageous for skilled trades in union construction. Journeyman-level workers can easily travel to other areas of the state or country to get work, if they are willing and able.
According to the Bradley study, demand for construction work should pick up sometime in 2010 and continue to grow steadily. Many economists who follow construction point to the demand for green building as positive. Green building is already generating retrofit work on existing buildings. Many building owners want to make their buildings more energy-efficient. Many new residential and commercial projects are or will seek green certification through LEED or ENERGY STAR. Solar, wind and other renewable installations are increasing in demand as well.
Oaks: Too many good workers are sitting at home, not earning a steady income so they can contribute to the local economy. As of now, at least, they are not taking off in droves for other areas of the country to work as they did in the ‘80s. The construction industry took quite a while to recover from the loss of qualified manpower when the economy bounced back.
Silverthorn: To date, the downturn does not compare to the 1980s recession, but that one lasted several years. Also, the ‘80s recession was concentrated more in the Midwest, and many of the local skilled tradespeople traveled south and to the coasts to find work. This recession is worldwide, and if it lasts as long as the last one, I believe it will be worse. We can only hope the state and federal stimulus programs work.
What skilled trade jobs will be most in demand in the next five to 10 years?
Everett: Electricians, steamfitters, boilermakers, ironworkers and carpenters.
Johnson: Projections show openings in all construction skilled trades in the next five to 10 years across the country and locally. Many workers will be retiring, and demand will begin to increase once we move out of this recession. One could deduce that demand for those trades directly tied to green building should grow immensely.
Oaks: Those trades with the foresight to see the big picture and will be able to supply trained—with the emphasis on trained—manpower for construction companies dealing with emerging technologies.
Silverthorn: There will be a need for skilled trades in all sectors of our economy. Once the recession is over and the markets recover, a large number of people will leave the workforce. Also, many companies offered early retirement to decrease their workforce. These jobs will have to be filled when their business returns. With the trends in new technology, all workers will need more skills to compete in a world economy. The buildings of the future will require more skills to construct due to green technology and energy requirements. The building trades will offer the training needed to fill these jobs.
According to a recent article in The Economist, “the crisis in capitalism has strengthened the hand of the unions.” Do you believe this to be the case?
Everett: I’ve seen political improvements and there’s great potential for us to balance things better in this country. More and more people recognize how far the scales have been tipped toward the privileged few. Your question reminds me of something I’ve said for years—that you can’t tell the difference between capitalism and communism when you are on the bottom starving to death.
Johnson: I believe that unions have been mislabeled, misunderstood and underappreciated for many years. The reason for unions in the beginning was to protect workers’ rights, to make sure they were compensated appropriately for their work and made it home safely each day. It wasn’t about greed, but fair compensation and safety. That remains the foundation today.
Yes, there are some in the unionized workforce who might distort that notion to their advantage, but there are also those in management who have gone awry through greed. We should not label the entire unionized workforce—or businesses—based on those few. We should appreciate that union workers hold up what’s left of our middle class. Unions provide good jobs in our local economies. Union workers spend their good wages at our local businesses. They have good healthcare and retirement plans and don’t rely on costly social services for needs. They come home safely each night to care for and be with their families. So, maybe, in these tough economic times when businesses are being scrutinized, unions have become more recognized or “stronger” again. Or maybe people are remembering why they were formed in the first place?
Oaks: It may have, but I truly think the union leaders of today are smart enough to understand that everything goes in cycles, and getting too arrogant and demanding can have a huge negative impact in the future for its members. It’s the whole “what-goes-around-comes-around” scenario. The construction industry does not have a short memory.
Silverthorn: I think that in times like these it is easy to point fingers and blame others. I am not going to do that, but I do believe that people will look at the building trades as a better career choice. The trades offer a middle-income wage, good healthcare and a great retirement plan. I think the building trades will be attractive to more people in the future.
Much of the business community has lined up against the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. What is your position on this legislation, and what would you say to business owners who fear its impact?
Everett: I’m for it because Americans have been unable to realize their rights under the current law to form or join a union without fear and intimidation. Business owners who say they’re worried about the workers’ right to cast secret ballots raise both my eyebrows…I don’t buy it. They just don’t want to have to negotiate or compromise on business and economic issues with an organized group—it’s easier to dictate and fire anyone who disagrees. Managing an organized workforce takes time, effort, talent and fairness.
Silverthorn: I am a supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act—not because it will give unions the power to run the company, which is being said by the opposition, but because it will give a person who wants to join a union a fair opportunity to do so. Since the inception of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, there have been 113 cases of union intimidation during an organizing campaign, and only 42 of those cases were found to have merit. In 2007 alone, there were 29,559 cases in which workers received back pay awards in cases involving illegal firings and other violations of the law. In 2006, that number was 26,824, and in 2005 it was 31,358. That is over 88,000 cases of employer coercion and intimidation in just three years. Consider what that number would be if we had records going back to 1935. Workers have no choice but to ask for legislation to level the playing field.
Is there any other legislation in the works in which you are especially interested?
Everett: We just landed the state capital bill after about 10 years and a thousand battles. The governor recently signed SB1906, which will help renewable energy projects…We are working hard to get capital dollars for the museum in Peoria.
Johnson: Certainly, state/federal capital bills and green energy legislation have a great impact on the union construction industry.
Oaks: Additional positive reform to our state’s workers’ compensation laws.
Silverthorn: We will be affected most by state/federal capital stimulus and energy/clean-air legislation because of the jobs they will create. But because of the tremendous increase in healthcare costs, we are very interested in the debate going on in Washington, DC. The cost of healthcare plans across all building trades has doubled in the last five years, with most of our members’ wage increases being applied to increased healthcare costs. Our nation has to have a healthcare plan that is affordable to all it citizens. iBi