Illinois invests in pre-apprenticeship programs to prepare a more diverse union workforce

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CHICAGO (CBS) — Inside the Rebuilding Exchange in Lincoln Park, salvaged chandeliers, doors, facades, and more are for sale.

The idea is to reuse them for new projects.

Morning Insider Lauren Victory shows us how some of those materials are also meant to create new career opportunities.

Somewhere between the piles of wood and heaps of scrap at Rebuilding Exchange on Webster Avenue, you’ll find the textbooks needed for Anne Nicklin’s newest workforce development training: a pre-apprenticeship program. Some of the topics covered: construction math, construction drawings and rigging.

"This is really about focused, intentional learning and intentional curriculum that can prepare people for applying to the building trade and apprenticeship programs," said Nicklin.

Rebuilding Exchange graduated three classes of pre-apprentices so far this year and started its fourth cohort earlier this month.

Daniel Santiago hopes the training will put him on path to a stable, good-paying job as a union electrician.

"A lot of unions do require you to have experience to get in easily," said Santiago, an 18-year-old pre-apprentice. 

The state-funded curriculum includes live demos and hands-on experiments, as well as visits to various worksites that feature different trades.

"You’ll learn about every union, not just one specific one, to sort of broaden your opportunities," said Santiago.

Pre-apprentices get a daily stipend to help with rent, food and transportation costs. The trainees hope a certification and a good recommendation will get the sparks flying during future interviews to become union apprentices (and beyond).

"Instead of folks [companies and/or unions] going to their brother, their cousin, someone that they know –  their kid’s best friend – they’re talking to their community organizations, folks like us, saying, ‘Who have you got?" said Nicklin. "It’s basically kind of taking the old boys network model and turning it on its head."

The doorway to a union career is about to open a little wider. The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) recently opened up applications for a second round of funding for pre-apprenticeship programs that would start in 2023. The deadline to apply is September 27.

CBS 2 spoke with Norman Ruano who is deputy director of Illinois Works, the office within DCEO that will dole out the next $15 million in pre-apprenticeship grants. In 2022, Illinois Works activated $10 million to support pre-apprenticeship programs at 23 different organizations including Rebuilding Exchange.

Priority for this new pot of money will go to organizations that can reach people from communities that’ve historically struggled to join unions.

"If their math skills are not there, their reading skills are not there, their interviewing skills are not there, those are going to be real barriers," Ruano explained. "We want to increase the representation of veterans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans that need a little bit more representation in our system."

Rebuilding Exchange hopes to continue being part of the solution. Nicklin plans to re-apply for the 2023 funding. Almost half of the $15 million allotted is intended for pre-existing pre-apprenticeship programs.

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September 15, 2022 at 07:07AM

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