According to officials, the classrooms at the apprenticeship school operated jointly by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 175 and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) are a far cry from what they were even a few years ago. Walking in, you see math formulas and algorithms on the boards. Electricity still powers business, and the need for it has never been greater—but the skills required to construct the systems needed for that power are computerized, sophisticated, and demand highly trained professionals to install and care for. So highly trained in fact, that it takes five years to complete the apprenticeship program.
Caleb Long already had both a B.S. and an M.P.A. from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga before deciding to become a second-generation electrician. Now working at Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station, he is also heading up the local chapter of IBEW’s RENEW initiative. Proposed in 2011 at the International Conference, RENEW (Reach out and Energize Next-gen Electrical Workers) is designed to help bridge the gap between a generation on the verge of retirement and the one ready to replace it.
“There are more people retiring than people coming into the pipeline,” Long points out. “Our local’s business manager, Barry Key, understood the need for this program. Each local is responsible for setting up their own RENEW committee, and he asked me to attend the most recent International Conference in Vancouver.”
RENEW has several goals, as Mr. Long explained. Continued education and “passing of the torch” is one of them, along with introducing younger workers to the community involvement and service that has been an IBEW hallmark, and also emphasizing the many benefits of union membership, along with helping to change stereotypes. “We are skilled craftsmen,” Mr. Long said. “Not just anyone can build the infrastructure that allows Gig City to flourish.”
They said that with approximately 20 current members, the new IBEW Local 175 RENEW committee has already participated in “Pink!”, offering a complete residential wiring job as a silent auction item. At the winning bid of $3,500, this represented a significant contribution to the nonprofit fighting breast cancer. It also represented a great bargain for the winning bidder, and will be used on a home currently being constructed on the Southside.
Mr. Long said that response to the RENEW idea has been positive across the board. “The younger generation sees a chance to break the glass ceiling and the older generation is saying, ‘It’s about time,’” he reports. “This is our opportunity to have a say and move into the future. You’ll be spotting the RENEW name quite a lot from now on.”