PORTLAND — Today’s union of electrical workers needs a big, multiyear construction project, local representatives said during a recent tour of a training center in Northeast Portland.
That need was expressed to a tour group — including port officials, business leaders and a Washington lawmaker — at the electrical training center operated by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association.
The tour went classroom-to-classroom to glimpse the various skills taught to apprentice electricians, from welding and industrial-scale wiring to in-house jobs and safety.
The tour, sponsored by Keep Washington Competitive, gave the union’s representatives a chance to tell the visitors about some of its challenges, such as impending retirement and constricting regulations.
But the biggest challenge: landing large infrastructure projects that drive union membership up and provide family-wage jobs, they said.
“I wouldn’t have gotten my opportunity to start in the trades if it wasn’t for a big project,” said Mike Bridges, a representative for the IBEW and the Building Trades Union.
In attendance were representatives from Vancouver Energy, the proposed crude oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver. Jared Larrabee of Vancouver Energy said his firm hopes to build a “world-class” facility with the union’s help.
“That fundamentally starts with world-class training and world-class workers,” he said.
That project would put to work 320 construction workers, according to union representative Matthew Hepner. He contends that those jobs, while temporary, form the bulk of those people’s work.
He said those projects are also some of the most effective ways to give apprentices hands-on training. Apprentices spend years cycling between projects and classrooms before they become journeyworkers.
“We need all the chances we can to continue to train our apprentices,” Hepner said.
Opponents and critics of the proposed rail-to-marine oil terminal, capable of handling 360,000 barrels per day, say it threatens to pollute waters and endanger marine life, among other ecological dangers.
Hepner said the union also faces waves of membership downturns as its workers retire. Journeyworkers in the union are, on average, in their 50s, Hepner said.
“Trained labor is going to be in short supply,” Hepner said, adding that they are already having trouble filling some jobs. “This is how we fill that void. By having good jobs where we can have better hours and actually practice everything we learn here on the job.”
Others on the tour were supportive, at least of infrastructure projects by and large. When asked what he thought of the tour, state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said “We need to get these guys to work.”
Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, said he hoped to see the work come.
It’s really special to have that connection that we do in our community and we look forward to working with you all,” he said.