Don’t Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

Building Trades Tout IL’s HIRE Education Program to Boost Minority, Female Involvement in Construction

Richard Saal/State Journal-Register

Richard Saal/State Journal-Register

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The Illinois labor community is looking to improve diversity within its ranks through a program called HIRE Education. The Lincoln Land Community College program is a 20-week course that prepares women, people of color, and former convicts for union apprenticeships. Those demographics are traditionally underrepresented in organized labor, according to the State Journal-Register:

With higher-than-average wages and good benefits, unions offer a great opportunity. But they’ve been criticized for their lack of diversity in race and gender. Many local construction unions admit their memberships are not very diverse, but say it’s something they’re working on.

[…] “A lot of times this is a second chance kind of program. Maybe students haven’t been successful elsewhere,” said Lincoln Land workforce development director Julie Rourke. “Rather than a job, it offers a career.”

Proponents of the program believe that in order for organized labor to flourish, it needs to reflect the increasingly diverse makeup of the broader American electorate:

“(Unions) used to be the old white guys club. I think that we have made mistakes in the past by doing that. You have to have diversity,” said [training coordinator for IBEW Local 193 and National Electrical Contractors Association Jim] Tomasko. “You have to change your whole culture. It goes back to recruitment.”

HIRE Education, which is funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation, works closely with local trade unions, including plumbers, carpenters and laborers, to try to bridge that gap.

Over the last decade, 60% of the program’s 450 graduates have been African American and 1% have been Latino. To put that into perspective, only 1-2% of Springfield’s plumbers and steamfitters union identify as minorities.

The program doesn’t focus solely on the apprenticeship. It gives workers the best shot possible by participation in the application process itself:

“(People) don’t know the qualifications. It’s very scary to go into a union hall and not know the process,” Rourke said. “This kind of teaches the admissions process. You get admissions training here.”

[…] “What we try to do is we try to make good candidates for (union) apprenticeships. We try to teach them the basics and then we leave it to whatever trade to teach them specific skill,” said Tom Spears, training coordinator for workforce development at Lincoln Land.

The program appears to be achieving its goals and many in Illinois have taken notice, State Journal-Register writes. For some, HIRE represents a path toward the future:

“I think these programs are the future of the labor movement in this community,” said laborers [Local 477] business agent Brad Shaive. “It is imperative that labor shows the community that we are inclusive and not exclusive.”

The program began in 2007 but has expanded in recent years thanks to funding increases, resulting in the uptick in notoriety around the state. Training investment has been a focal point of Department of Labor efforts since Thomas Perez became Secretary of Labor, and is frequently highlighted by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.


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