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With Workers In Demand, Many Are Choosing To Become Apprentices

Training director Rob Swegle, center, Bobby Taylor from Mid-Illinois Companies, left, and Matt Watchinski from the East Peoria-based Carpenters local, inside the Pekin training site.
Ryan Denham
Training director Rob Swegle, center, Bobby Taylor from Mid-Illinois Companies, left, and Matt Watchinski from the East Peoria-based Carpenters local, inside the Pekin training site.

Christopher Basso spent 8 years as a cook, including at a country club in Springfield.

Earlier this year, the 24-year-old changed course. As he put it, he wanted to “do something” with his life.

“You get tired of that kind of lifestyle, working weird hours. So I just wanted to start an actual career and not just keep going to work,” Basso said.

Today, Basso is about three months into what'll likely be a four-year apprenticeship with the Carpenters union. He is one of many new apprentices who have joined the Carpenters in the last couple years. The trade has seen significant growth.

Those apprenticeships bring Basso and others to the Carpenters training facility in Pekin. During a recent WGLT visit, Basso and his classmates were learning to build a little rocking horse.

It's a toy with a serious lesson, notably how to use tools and follow instructions.

“They’re actually pretty structural. You can really put some weight on them. One of the bigger kids in my class just stood on it and it didn’t go anywhere. It’s pretty fun,” Basso said.

The pandemic has reshaped the American labor market in many ways. For some workers, it’s prompted soul-searching about the difference between a job and a career – and what's fair pay for either.

Basso and others are coming into the apprenticeship program looking for a fresh start.

"With baby boomers retiring, there’s a need to fill these spots. And they’re good-paying jobs with good benefits."
Matt Watchinski, Carpenters union business rep

Matt Watchinski is a business rep with a Carpenters local based in East Peoria, which also serves Bloomington-Normal. They've brought in over 100 new apprentices in the past 2 years.

He said the recent push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage played a role.

“It made people do a lot of reflecting. Not everybody’s cut out for college. I wasn’t. That’s why I’m here,” Watchinski said. “Unfortunately, a lot of schools did away with their shop programs in the 1990s, to make way for computer labs, because that was the latest greatest thing coming up and we had to get people trained in that. You can’t fault the school districts. But with baby boomers retiring, there’s a need to fill these spots. And they’re good-paying jobs with good benefits.”

Watchinski said the new recruits are coming from all corners of the economy.

“Today we had a 19-year-old kid with zero experience (come in). We had a woman come in with her infant child that was looking for a job with benefits so she could make it on her own. We had a guy with 15 years of welding experience who wanted to branch out, as he topped out at the factory he was in. We could use somebody like that Rivian welding stuff. We could use him on bridges,” Watchinski said. “They come in from all over the board.”

The average age of an apprentice was 26 as of a couple years ago. That’s a number the Carpenters want to see lower.

“Apprentices have told me (they’re joining) because of the benefits,” said Rob Swegle, the training director in Pekin. “Because that’s (the age) when they’re starting to have families, looking for medical insurance, and a pension, that kind of thing. They want job security too.”

Swegle gave WGLT a tour of his training complex on a recent Monday afternoon. There were scaled-down versions of all the things apprentices will encounter out on the job. A small roof that needed to be shingled. A small room that needed a doorframe. Their own welding booth.

Other things were full-sized, like the steam turbine they got from a Caterpillar plant. The Millwright apprentices learn to dismantle and rebuild those using bridge cranes. The training facility in Pekin also provides advanced-skills training to those who are already journeymen. One example is teaching them how to mount solar panels on the ground or roofs.

Out back in Pekin, there's a 130-foot wind turbine that powers the complex, plus a dorm where up to 22 apprentices can live if home is far enough away.

“It’s 640 hours of instruction over the course of four years. One week every 3 months. The whole motto of apprenticeship is, the more you learn, the more you earn,” Swegle said.

Evolving with industry demand

The apprentices aren't the only ones adapting to something new.

The training facility itself has added new courses as the industry demanded it. There's now a simulated hospital room where apprentices learn how to work in a dust and contaminant-free way. That makes them more employable for the contractors who ultimately hire them.

One of those contractors is Peoria-based Mid-Illinois Companies, where Bobby Taylor is an owner. He's also a former Carpenters apprentice himself.

Taylor is on the training facility's board, helping it stay current with what industry needs.

Right now, it needs people. Taylor said his company – an interior systems contractor – stayed busy, even during the heart of the pandemic.

“And then coming out of the pandemic, obviously everybody was ready to get out and they were letting loose some of their money. Up to this point, it’s been good. The markets we work in have been busy. That’s Springfield, Champaign, Decatur. Peoria’s been a bit of a slower market, but we see it coming out more toward the third or fourth quarter and into next year,” Taylor said.

Dennis Jakubovski has seen this demand too. He's a fourth-year apprenticeship with a local out of Springfield. He's done work all over, including in Bloomington-Normal.

“It’s really good. It’s the same in Champaign. Now I’m working on Central High School in Champaign, and we have a hard time getting guys out there because of so many other projects going on in central Illinois,” he said.

Jakubovski started four years ago. At the time he was attending community college and working construction. He had a young son.

Today, he is about to “journey out,” meaning he'll become a full-fledged journeyman in the Carpenters union.

“It had its hurdles and difficulties, but I stuck it out. It’s almost like a four-year degree, but I don’t have no tuition. And I got to work while I’m learning, so I was making money,” he said.

Now, Jakubovski exits the apprenticeship program into an economy that's clamoring to hire him.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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