High schoolers learn the benefits of a union trades career


Illinois Correspondent

CAHOKIA HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS are served lunch after hearing presentations by Iron Workers Local 392 instructors.

There was a time – a long time – when it seemed like learning trade skills was not going to be offered to our high school kids, even though it provides an excellent way for them to make careers in an unpredictable economy.

There was so much emphasis on getting them all through college that actual work training was sort of left by the side of the road.

It was up to unions and their allies to find ways to teach kids that they could learn those job skills and use them to support themselves well. And the unions have done it, building strong and successful apprentice programs.

This year, they’ve been getting some help from Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, which organized apprenticeship tours (before the COVID-19 coronavirus shut everything down) that brought hundreds of high school students into the programs for a look around, talks with working union members and a little lunch.

The programs were well-received on both sides and should be expected to continue.

Totsie Bailey, executive-secretary treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council, credits Ronda Sauget, executive director of the Leadership Council, with organizing and carrying out the project, and the unions, too, for opening their doors and sharing with the students.

“We’ve had a lot of good feedback about it,” he said. “It went very well. The locals did a very good job, and the kids were really interested.

“Guys took off work to help. They were just that interested in showing off their local unions.”

The work culminated in a two-day series of events. Groups from 13 Metro-East high schools were hosted by 11 different union programs including:

  • Iron Workers Local 392, East St. Louis.
  • Sheet Metal Workers Local 268, Caseyville.
  • Boilermakers Local 363, Belleville.
  • Carpenters Regional Council, Belleville.
  • Electrical Workers Local 309, Collinsville.
  • Electrical Workers Local 649, Alton.
  • Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 553, East Alton.
  • Operating Engineers Local 520, St. Jacob.
  • Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 101, Belleville.
  • Steamfitters Local 439, Caseyville.
  • Laborers Training Center, Edwardsville.

Each school’s delegation would attend a session from 9:15 to 10:45 a.m. at one of the training centers, then bus over to another center for a session from 11:15 to 12:45, followed by lunch for everybody. The sessions weren’t just lectures – they had hands-on demonstrations and virtual reality experiences, plus discussions about how to apply for apprenticeships.

CARPENTERS’ UNION apprentice instructors demonstrate building measurement techniques to Mascoutah High School students.

An estimated 440 students participated from Cahokia, Dupo, O’Fallon Township, Freeburg, Triad, Alton Civic Memorial, Granite City, Belleville East, Belleville West, Collinsville, Edwardsville, Highland and Madison high schools.

In addition, a special school-wide outreach event at Mascoutah High School on March 6 included 1,200 students hearing from union and industry speakers. Some 47 industries were represented.

Julie Laskko, writing in the Mascoutah Herald, described it this way:

“This in-person presentation allows students to interact with people in their prospective fields while getting a better idea of how these careers impact their community. They also get the opportunity to see the people in these careers as people, not just another stock photo or written description. It is a hands-on experience unlike anything online career-testing or research can provide.”

Another 1,600 students learned about trades work on Freshman Orientation Day at Granite City High School.

“It’s really helped clear up perceptions about the building trades,” Sauget said.

IRON WORKERS LOCAL 392 instructors use virtual reality equipment to help Mascoutah High School students experience what it is like to work high up on a building.

Sauget described how the Iron Workers’ presentation included having the kids walk on a narrow board on the floor to simulate how it feels to be walking on rails high over a job site.

“The kids were saying, ‘Wow!’ It really made you feel like you were 30 feet in the air,” she said.

The high schools all want the programs to continue, Sauget said.

“It was just a tremendous amount of exposure,” she said. “We’ve been everywhere. And you have to do it every year because those kids continue to change. It’s just made a huge difference.”

Bailey said the Trades Council has long known that young people will respond if they get a chance to find out what the work is like.

“They’ve been taught you don’t want to be a manual laborer, but we make a good living and we train all the time,” he said. “We invest in our crafts to be our best.”

Young workers learn that they have to be there on time and every day to work with contractors on tight schedules.

“Every hour they’re down could be $1 million,” he said. “So we do it right the first time. After guys come to work with us, they don’t want to leave.”

So you can expect more of these programs – and more young people moving into trades work.

The visits were part of the Leadership Council’s Workforce 2030 program, led in recent years by its Labor Management and Manufacturing Steering committees, to bring “STEM” education and opportunities to young people and to connect union apprenticeship program with underserved and minority students.

In a report, Sauget noted that, “Without a doubt, the support of the unions, business and high schools has made a significant difference in building access and capacity of underserved and minority populations entering into the building trades and construction fields in southwestern Illinois and surrounding communities.”

To get involved in these programs or to bring one to your kid’s school, contact Ronda Sauget at (618) 692-9745 or ronda@leadershipcouncilswiul.com.


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