How Better Training Creates Better Electricians

IBEW electricianIn the construction world, results matter. If work time is lost due to injuries or shoddy work that has to be redone, there is a very real impact on the bottom line.

That’s why the IBEW and the ECAO have invested so much effort into ensuring that the training of all members, from apprentices to journeypersons, is second to none. It’s a great example of a private sector union and employer working together to meet marketplace demands.

Quick facts:

So, what is the IBEW and ECAO approach to training? We talked to Susan Boorman with IBEW Local 353 and Eric Hueglin from the Joint Apprenticeship Council (JAC) in Toronto to find out.

Lifelong Learning

“Even after a member has their journeyperson’s certificate, the learning doesn’t stop.” says Susan Boorman, Director of Education and Training with Local 353. “The tools and technology are constantly evolving, so our members are either learning new skillsets or refreshing older ones. We are industry-sensitive and can quickly react to industry demands, therefore providing training to meet employer demands.”

At Local 353, the courses are free which ensures there are no barriers between an individual member and the knowledge they want. “We have an excellent education and training fund that ensures everyone has access to training and upgrading,” notes Susan.

IBEW Local 353 Training FacilityBecause Local 353 serves the massive Greater Toronto Area, there are four permanent training facilities. This includes the new 78,000 square foot Oshawa facility, which opened in June 2017. It includes four classrooms, four shops, and a computer lab. A 12-bay welding lab is in the planning stages.

Classes cover many related technologies, from fire alarm, programmable logic controllers (PLC), green technologies, computer operations, to building operation. The list is far reaching.

“The classes predominantly happen at night, as our members work during the day,” says Susan. “Courses can range from two evenings to 10 to 12-week courses. We have spring, fall and summer semesters.”

Information about upcoming courses mailed to members’ homes and is also available on the IBEW 353 website. Online registration (as well as in-person and by fax) makes it easy to sign up.

Adapting to Change

How does the 353 team keep up with new changes? Susan says they actively seek out new information from working electricians, manufacturers, and vendors alike.

“Our instructors are journeypersons working in the field, often specialists and recognized subject matter experts. We also have excellent working relationships with manufacturers who keep us up to date on new tools and technology.”

While apprentices need to learn a wide-ranging set of skills, journeypersons sometimes choose to specialize. This creates an overall knowledge pool that is deep as well as wide-ranging.

“IBEW electricians in general are recognized nationally and internationally as being very well trained,” says Susan.

Apprenticeships: Finding The Right Candidates

electrical apprentice with safety equipmentErik Hueglin, Director of Apprenticeship for the Toronto Joint Apprenticeship Council (JAC) explains how their apprentice intake process works. He begins by saying, “our mandate is to get the best of the best.”

“We get around a thousand applicants every year for our intake stream,” he explains. “And we accept only the top 100 to 150, depending on the demand for that year.”

“Most applicants have some sort of post-secondary education already, and some are university grads,” he notes. “The average age of our applicants tends to be around 27 – 28. We’ve seen a lot of former computer programmers, IT and cable installers, or high school graduates who have taken extra courses to prove their dedication.”

The process is rigorous.

electrical apprentices in trainingTo be considered, applicants need to have high school physics, math, and English, and the JAC’s requirements are well above the provincial minimum. A job awareness activity ensures candidates are made aware of the rigours that come with the job.

“Young people may not realize that electrical work means a lot of time spent on ladders or elevated work platforms, often in harsh environments. The work involves not only a lot of tool use but awareness of some very real dangers,” says Erik.

The top applicants then write a 130-question aptitude test. They must also do well on an in-depth interview conducted by a panel made up of employers and experienced electricians.

Communication ability is an important requirement for these electricians-to-be. Erik says, “That interview panel is looking for very specific things. You can have all the marks in the world, but if you just give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers in that interview, you’re not getting in.”

Supporting Apprentices Right Through the Process

teacher with electrical apprentices“We work hard to get the best candidates, and then we work hard to ensure we turn them into the best electricians. They are very well supported from beginning to end with our program,” Erik says.

The apprenticeship begins with an 1,800 hour pre-apprenticeship program. This goes above and beyond the full 9,000 hour universal program that all electrical apprentices in Ontario do. Pre-apprentices also receive two weeks of safety and orientation training before they are referred to an employer.

“We have six full-time counsellors here in Toronto, plus an admin staff. The counsellors look at each candidate, tailor the training program to their strengths and weaknesses, and remain as their dedicated contact throughout the apprenticeship.”

The program is highly adaptive to changes in life situation that an apprentice may experience. “For example,” says Erik, “if an apprentice is laid off, we’ll adapt their program to either send them to do the next trade school component or provide other supplemental learning.”

The process also keeps the apprentice accountable and on track. “They are all very aware of the fact that there’s a lineup of people waiting to take their place.”

The Rewards

For candidates who make it, the reward is a very satisfying career with great pay and benefits.

“There is incredible job satisfaction that comes with being an electrician,” says Erik. “when you leave the work site, you’ve built something very useful that will last. Very few jobs can say the same thing. I started my apprenticeship over 30 years ago, and I still think we have the best system out there.”