Laborer jobs remain in high demand in Illinois and across the United States as companies struggle to find employees. Unions want the next generation of workers to have access to hands-on training at a younger age.
An apprenticeship program in McLean County is trying to lay a foundation that will steer young people to construction.
Andrew Chehak of Moline is now in his second career in construction after working in scrap metal recycling.
He said going back to school will help him transition to specialized and less physically demanding tasks as he gets older.
“As you get more educated, you can step up in your different companies and do more technical work, versus labor-intensive work,” Chehak said. “That’s what I’m shooting for, to be more specialized, to work higher up but have less strenuous activity.”
That might come sooner than later for Chehak. He's 48 years old but doesn't consider that an impediment even though he's doing hard labor for an asphalt company in Bettendorf, Iowa.
“I’m a strong willed individual, so I try to keep myself up to where the young men cannot overperform me,” he said.
Still, Chehak wishes he had specialized training earlier in life.
“I don’t see myself ever retiring from construction because I won’t have enough time invested,” Chehak conceded.
Chehak's story is more common than you might think. He will graduate this month from the Illinois Laborers Training and Apprenticeship School in Stanford, west of Bloomington. The average student enrolls at age 32.
The Laborers International Union took over the former grade school in 2007 to provide training for dozen of skills laborers who could learn even while working full-time jobs. It also runs training schools in Mount Sterling, Marion and Edwardsville.
The four sites have produced 1,869 graduates since the Illinois Department of Labor certified the apprentice program in 1997.
Terry Whitecotton manages the facility at the apprentice school. He recently led tours for business, government and education leaders to teach them what the place offers for tomorrow's work force.
Whitecotton said too often, construction work has become a fallback when it should be a primary goal while people are still in school.
“People have been geared toward college and other avenues and I think that some of these guys find that that’s not their avenue and they go work in some other industry and then they see what we do and see this is the type of work they like,” Whitecotton said. “I think they probably realize they may need health insurance and benefits and that type of thing and they come in and apply.”
Diploma or GED Required
The apprenticeship program now has 302 enrollees at its four sites. Applicants must have a high school diploma or a GED. They go through 600 hours of classroom training in three years. That's five 40-hour courses each year. They also do 3,000 hours of on-the-job training.
The union pays for training, lodging and mileage for apprentices. They don't earn money for training, though many also work and their pay rate increases with each level of apprenticeship. They typically start out in the $24 per-hour range and could reach $32 per hour by the end of the program.
That outpaces what a typical high school graduate makes in the workforce, even working only nine months of the year during construction season. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows those with a college degree earn close to $2,000 more per month than those who never went to college and are far more likely to find work.
Whitecotton said the school doesn't take apprentices unless they are confident there will be work when they get out. He said enrollment ebbs and flows as jobs do.
“When they see (construction) barrels, they apply,” he said.
Sometimes the program brings in as many as 100 a year. Sometimes none. Whitecotton is cautiously optimistic about the future of trainees.
“It’s been good in the last few years. If some of the opportunities become available in the area, there’s some (wind farm projects) that are projected to happen and solar farms, stuff like that,” Whitecotton said.
“If those things happen that would create more of a need for apprentices for us.”
For unions to have a stable talent pool, Whitecotton said they need to reach people even before high school.
“I think that students should be exposed to other opportunities than college at an early age so they can look,” Whitecotton said. “We’ve been pushing people toward college for years and years and I think they need to realize there’s other opportunities out there that provide a good living wage.”
Mark Jontry, superintendent for the Regional Office of Education for McLean, DeWitt, Livingston and Logan counties, agrees.
“Educators must consistently convey that skilled labor is a tremendous opportunity to do something you might really enjoy while earning an excellent salary,” he said.
Jontry said apprenticeship programs like the one in Stanford are “crucial to maintaining a skilled workforce and improving the core infrastructure of our state.”
Options Besides College
Brian Bradshaw is director of special activities at Heyworth High School. He took the apprenticeship tour to see what students who won't go to college can do. Bradshaw said that's about 30 percent of his students.
“A lot of students don’t know what they want to do and we want to get to those students at an earlier age so they have an idea,” Bradshaw explained. “We are finding that less students are going to college. They are going into the workforce.”
Bradshaw said schools should talk to students about career paths as early as junior high. He's happy the apprenticeship program in Stanford wants to partner with the Bloomington Area Career Center which offers vocational training to students in 17 area high schools to help students get high school and college credit while still in high school.
“Gosh, I think there are students out there that want to take this career path but they don’t have that opportunity, so I see many students taking advantage of it,” Bradshaw said.
Some students don't like the idea of sitting behind a desk all day. Brent Jacobson of Rockford is one of them.
“I didn’t like school as a kid,” Jacobson said. “I didn’t see going to college was in the books for me."
The 26-year-old spent much of his time after high school doing odd construction jobs. Then came apprenticeship school. He's still taking classes, but it's more hands on.
“I wouldn’t say they are challenging, they are just a lot of learning,” Jacobson said. “It just helps you out in the field and learn why you are doing stuff instead of just doing it.”
Jacobson is now one year away from an apprentice diploma he hopes will further his career in construction.
“Benefits, health insurance, having something with a pension, having something to fall back on when I retire and just set myself up for the long run,” Jacobson said.
The program teaches apprentices more than labor intensive tasks like laying pipe and landscaping.
Instructor Brent Whitecotton, Terry's cousin, is leading a class on GPS. It teaches how people use satellite tech to set specific geographic coordinates at a construction site. It requires measuring horizontal and vertical angles and distances.
“So who likes doing math?” Whitecotton asks those taking the tour.
Chehak said mastering GPS will help him with his work with a blacktop contractor this summer.
“I do a lot of setting up the sites with boundaries and elevations and drainage and stuff, so I have to learn all this product to do a better job,” he said.
Aside from practical knowledge gained from the three-year apprenticeship, Chehak added it has given him a sense of pride, knowing he has a better career potential.
“This labor program through Illinois is great. It showed me how to work for a goal and reach it,” Chehak declared.
Terry Whitecotton said the school also hopes to bring disaster response training to Stanford. He notes laborers from across Central Illinois were on the ground in Taylorville volunteering for relief and cleanup just minutes after a tornado destroyed several hundred homes and businesses in December.
Whitecotton said only 12 percent of the program's apprentices are women. They are looking for ways to get more women to apply.
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