Local union leaders say state can do more to help fill jobs

Rodger Robertson, Jr., talks with students from Keokuk, Central Lee and Wapello, about sheet metal welding and service Thursday at the National Guard Armory in Middletown. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC


MIDDLETOWN – Students from around the area spent two days learning about apprenticeships from trades experts at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant in Middletown this week.

More than 230 students hung out at the IAAP grounds armory Wednesday and Thursday morning to listen to the benefits of learning a craft, building a life, and staying in Iowa.

The event was organized by the Iowa Army National Guard and included union trade representatives of electrical, welding, engineering, and HVAC industries.

Sydney Howren, a Keokuk High School sophomore, listened to sheet metal workers Local 91 instructor Rodger Robertson Jr., talk about his industry and work on a welding simulator.

Keokuk High School sophomore Sydney Howren, takes a turn on a welding simulator Thursday morning at Trades Show event at the Iowa Army National Guard Armory in Middletown. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

Howren said she’s got a plan mapped out, but isn’t sure just what trade she’s leaning toward.

“I already got it all figure out. I want to do something with welding and then I want to do something raising cattle,” she said. “But I want to be able to do both.”

Howren said she isn’t intimidated looking into work that is traditionally dominated by men. As a matter of fact, she thinks it’s kinda cool.

“I’ve been doing what the guys do since I was little. I hunted when I was little and still hunt, and I just fit in with the guys,” she said.

“It’s different because you don’t see so many girls, but you create a bond with these guys and that’s pretty cool to have that interaction with them. If I were to get stuck on the road or something. I know they would come help me.”

Howren said she’s usually goes to most shop shows offered by the school because she sees new opportunities and meets new people.

She said she’s leaning more towards welding and pipefitting.

But despite the uptick in activity focusing on high school students to see trades as a viable option to the college path, several organizers and presenters at the event said there’s more that can be done.

Ryan Drew, president of the Southeast Iowa Building and Trades and a member of the Local 150 International Union of Operating Engineers, said the state is misfiring on apprenticeship programs.

“We see two missing pieces. No. 1, we get them into these programs but then when say the city of Fort Madison builds a new library, we send it out to contractors to bid on, but we put no preference or any kind of language in there that we want our youth as apprentices to be involved in building these projects,” Drew said.

“Instead we just say we want the person that can build it the cheapest.”

He said unions are trying to drive that message to legislators and the Governor’s office.

“We say these careers are great, but if we want to keep these kids here in our community we have to support those jobs when we are building a new gym or a new plant,” he said.

“That’s what we see as a flaw in the state of Iowa. Other state’s have taken that initiative to either incentivize contracts at bidding time or they require them at bidding time.” Drew said.

Drew also said people aren’t talking enough about safety. He said construction work is routinely in the top 10 as far dangerous occupations and said students need to hear that and make sure they are being trained according to safety standards.

“We can’t be misleading these kids. These are dangerous jobs and you want to make sure the company you working for has the proper protections in place,” he said.

Robertson said he’s been a little surprised that money isn’t typically the first things students have been asking about. But he said the subject almost always comes up.

“They usually ask what kind of work we do and where we do it,” Robertson said.

“Most of the time I have to ask them how much they think it pays. And when we get into that and the benefits and retirement annuities, then they get pretty interested.”

Drew said a 2018 Burlington High School graduate who went to work on a state highway project north of Burlington as a first-year apprentice made $32,000 in five and half months.

“That’s a pretty good return on the investment for the state of Iowa,” Drew said.

Jacob Nye, with the electrical workers Local 113, said the shows are helping with the message that college isn’t for everyone.

“The push over the years to go to college, that pushed a lot of our kids out of the area. We want our kids to stay here, and do well and earn a good living and that’s what these opportunities provide.”

Nye said there isn’t near enough of the trade shows going on.

“Absolutely not.” Nye said. ‘I don’t know… it’s a focus we have to encourage students to look at their options. Where do they want to live, what jobs are available and then you select the training you need to do that job. Instead of that college mentality.”

Jesse Howard, of New London is a 1st Sgt. of Recruiting for Southeast Iowa with the National Guard said southeast Iowa is begging for events like this to help fill skills gaps all over the area.

“There is more and more investment in trade programs now. New London is rebuilding their trades programs. Burlington and Fort Madison continue to grow their’s because they see the importance of it,” Howard said.

“Folks in the field are saying we need qualified people to come and work here. We’ll teach and train ’em but we need them to want to work here.”

Robertson said math and attendance are two of the biggest things potential apprentice candidates need to be concerned with.

“It’s the math, the algebra, geometry, trigonometry is so important.”

But he said applications are also weighted heavily on attendance at high school.

“They rely on them showing up every day on time because they have a crew that is designed with four guys who have to get a job done,” he said. “If the fourth guy doesn’t show up… now they’re waiting on someone which isn’t good.”

Independent contractors and development groups are also putting resources toward trade and state STEM efforts. The Fort Madison Economic Development Group just donated $1,000 to the Fort Madison High School welding program for equipment.

Other local industries partner regularly with Lee County Economic Development Group to put on classes and events that focus on jobs that are available in the area that may require a certification, but don’t necessarily require a college degree.

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