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Real progress being made to increase diversity in union apprenticeship programs

In citing statewide statistics, Sun-Times story failed to recognize the progress many Chicago area unions have made in tackling this challenge head-on.

Elbert Walters III, director of Powering Chicago, stands outside the IBEW Local 134 business offices in Chicago.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

As a 21-year member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134 and an African-American, I was very proud to see that the hard work of my union brothers and sisters and all workers was celebrated on Labor Day.

Labor Day pays tribute to the many contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country, and there are few places in the United States with a more vibrant labor history than Chicago. That’s why I was so disappointed that the Sun-Times, owned in part by local labor unions, chose to publish a story on Labor Day that failed to recognize local efforts made by labor to increase diversity among its ranks.

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The article uses statewide statistics to infer that no progress has been made in the Chicago area to increase opportunities for people of color to access apprenticeships and well-paying jobs in the trades. Citing statewide statistics fails to acknowledge the progress that many Chicago area unions have made in tackling this challenge head-on.

At IBEW Local 134, we’re proud of the fact that 41.1% of our electrical apprentices are people of color and of our tireless work to continue strengthening our diversity, equity and inclusion. Our entire industry, IBEW 134 and the Electrical Contractors’ Association of City of Chicago, has dedicated a tremendous amount of time and resources devoted to outreach in underserved communities. We have instituted partnerships with high schools and community groups to share the knowledge of how to access our apprenticeship program. We have created hands-on programs inside of public and private high schools like Dunbar, Simeon, Prosser, Juarez and Leo to increase awareness of our trade. We also participate at church-sponsored events, adult-based job readiness programs and career fairs across the city’s South and West sides.

We created the Jump Start Program more than 10 years ago that is open to all with minimal qualifications. Jump Start offers 24 hours of intensive classroom instruction that introduces individuals to the electrical construction industry. In addition, we developed a paid Trainee Program, which further prepares candidates and provides them with credits toward apprenticeships. And, we have designed a completely objective and colorblind system for candidates to apply for our apprenticeship program.

We will continue our work to increase opportunities for minorities and underserved populations in our industry. It remains one of our top priorities, as it should be for all unionized trades. We know that doing so will further strengthen the electrical industry and provide a better construction environment, better career opportunities, and better communities to live in throughout the Chicagoland area.

Elbert Walters III
Director of Powering Chicago