Find a career, earn while you learn, avoid debt

Apprenticeship programs are plentiful in central Illinois

By Amy Talcott
Photos by Ron Johnson, Mike Bailey
Men in hardhats and yellow vests shaking hands in front of a building under construction
Apprentice and first year laborer Rodney Anderson, left, shakes hands with Matt Bartolo, President of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council

The skilled trades historically have a reputation for being stable, well-paying careers. While employment opportunities in many industries ebb and flow, skilled tradespeople such as plumbers, carpenters and electricians continue to be in demand.

Central Illinois employs about 6,000 skilled trade workers in 15 different construction crafts. Much of the success of the area trades is due to robust apprenticeship programs, which enable individuals to “learn and earn” by receiving classroom instruction and paid work experience on their way to earning professional credentials and certifications.

Centrally located opportunities

James Dillon is associate director of the West Central Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council (WCIBCTC), a 15,000-member-strong alliance of 15 craft unions. In addition to facilitating connections between apprentices and contractors, WCIBCTC provides detailed information on each apprenticeship program including a description of the trade, wage information and recommended preparatory classes. 

“The central Illinois area is fortunate that most of the apprenticeship programs are located right here,” said Dillon. In fact, WCIBCTC supports and facilitates training and education programs for 17 different crafts throughout a 13-county area in west-central Illinois, including carpenters, electricians, operating engineers, steamfitters, plumbers and ironworkers. 

Apprentice and working looking at a piece of equipment.An alternative to four-year college

The average age of an individual entering an apprenticeship program is 26, but due to increased exposure to the skilled trades in local high schools, younger people are choosing to pursue those careers. 

Brandon Currie is training administrator at Peoria Area Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committees (JATC). “I’ve seen more interest from the high schools as far as exposing kids to a parallel path to the college route,” he said, “and I’ve seen an increase in the number of applicants right out of high school.”

That interest is due in part to programs like P.E.R.F.E.C.T. (Peoria Educational Region for Employment and Career Training), a program that delivers and supports Career and Technical Education (CTE) to area high school students. In partnership with the Peoria Area Labor Management Council and Tri-County Construction Labor-Management Council (PALM/TRICON), students can experience a number of trades, select one they like and spend a semester interning with a contractor while they continue attending school. 

For high school graduates or those with GEDs, the Peoria LC-Highway Construction Careers Training Program offers an intensive 12-week program that focuses on math, job readiness, technical skills coursework, an OSHA 10-hour certification and first aid/CPR certification.

There’s also Illinois Central College’s Earn and Learn program, which provides participants 300 to 450 hours of coursework for each year of apprenticeship, along with a guaranteed minimum hourly payment and coverage of the cost of tuition, fees and books. 

Something for everyone

While the average age of an apprentice may be in the mid-20s, Dillon is seeing individuals in their 30s and 40s enter the skilled trades workforce. “Even when I got into the plumber apprenticeship, half of my class had four-year degrees,” he said. “They had white collar jobs and decided that sitting behind a desk wasn’t for them and wanted to transition to something else.” 

More women also are entering the skilled trades industry. Sharon Williams, editor and business manager of the Labor Paper, leads Union Sisters, a group of more than 120 local women who serve as resources for support and recruitment as well as perform volunteer service in the community. 

The “sisters” attend recruiting events and visit schools to meet with young women who might be interested in a skilled trades career. “Since our organization started, we’ve had about 20 women join our group who are currently apprentices,” said Williams. “That’s a great number and we feel we are making that difference in women pursuing these careers. We have almost every trade represented, which just a few years ago may not have been the case.”

Earn while you learn

Perhaps the biggest benefit to a career in the skilled trades is “earn while you learn.” About 20 percent of the program is classroom instruction, and the other 80 percent takes place out on the job, said Robert Swengle, training coordinator at Mid-Central IL Regional Council of Carpenters JATC. 

“Apprentices earn a percentage of scale wages while they’re training on the job,” he explained. “Over the three to five years of their program, they are making a salary, receiving health care benefits and earning a pension. When they graduate the apprenticeship program, they’re making journeyman wages.”

Otto Baum Company, Inc. (OBCI), the Morton-based concrete contractor, hires many apprentices. “One of the best benefits of doing so is that the apprentice has typically had some exposure to the trades, has been vetted by the union, and gets paid a wage commensurate with skill level,” explained OBCI President Terry Baum. 

Unlike many professions, the skilled trades allow participants to move from company to company without sacrificing salary. “Because of our collective bargaining agreement, if I’m a union carpenter working for a company, and work slows down, I have the ability to move to a different company for the same money and benefits,” said Matt Bartolo, president of WCIBCTC. “I think that’s what draws a lot of people in, especially if they have worked in the private sector and know that if the company they work for goes out of business, they may have to start completely over with another company for less pay, even if they have years of experience.” 

Another benefit of trades, said Currie, is the absence of student loans. “When you graduate from an apprenticeship program, you won’t have the debt you might incur by attending college. However, some of our programs are college-accredited, which means you can take credits you earned throughout the apprenticeship and receive a bachelor’s or associate’s degree without being bogged down by student loan debt.”

Thinking about a trade career?

For those interested in a career in the skilled trades, Currie recommends first doing some research. “Look at the different skilled trades to get a sense of what would interest you. Then make sure you understand the requirements and application process, since they differ between programs.”

Most of the apprenticeship programs require a pre-evaluation or aptitude test and an interview. Minimum qualifications usually include an official set of high school transcripts or GED certificate, birth certificate and valid driver’s license. Individuals then talk to a business agent, who will discuss apprenticeship opportunities and openings. 

Apprenticeship programs can serve as a launchpad to a long and prosperous career. “While they have always been a valuable part of union construction, they’re even more so in today’s labor market,” said Baum. “I see opportunity in the union trades remaining strong due to infrastructure legislation passed in Illinois and nationally, and as contractors find it increasingly difficult to provide workers to meet construction demand.” 

“There’s so much opportunity for growth, especially here in central Illinois,” said Dillon. “If you wanted in today, it’s probably one of best opportunities to start a career in the skilled trades.”

Amy Talcott
Amy Talcott is a senior marketing and communications analyst at RLI Corp. and freelance writer