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June 15, 2023

Maine AFL-CIO construction training 'academy' aims to diversify workforce

people in hard hats with equipment in field Courtesy / Maine AFL-CIO Pre-apprentices in the Union Construction Academy of Maine’s first cohort had hands-on training in the field.

The new Union Construction Academy of Maine recently graduated its first cohort of 15 pre-apprentices, including six individuals in pre-release or re-entry programs, seven asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Togo, and three refugees from Afghanistan. 

The academy is a free, four-week registered pre-apprentice program run by the Maine AFL-CIO, Maine Building Trades Council and the New England Laborers Training Academy. It’s designed specifically to prepare a diverse workforce from underrepresented populations to graduate into union-registered apprenticeship programs as union carpenters, electricians, elevator constructors, ironworkers, insulators, laborers, millwrights, plumbers and pipefitters, sheet metal workers and more. The goal of the program is to prepare workers to succeed in registered apprenticeship programs and to build careers.

“Apprenticeship is a career opportunity for all Mainers, it is an earn-while-you-learn career pathway that connects real people with highly skilled jobs that exist now,” said Jennifer McKenna, chair of the Maine Apprenticeship Council.

group of people posing
Courtesy / Maine AFL-CIO
The free, four-week pre-apprentice program aims to prepare a diverse workforce from underrepresented populations to graduate into union-registered apprenticeship programs.

Earning wages from the start, most apprentices have little-to-no debt when they graduate and statistically earn much higher wages as they become more and more skilled, she said.

“In a competitive job market, apprenticeship helps employers find and retain their future workforce, utilizing customized training for their specific business,” McKenna said.

The Maine AFL-CIO was one of 14 Maine organizations that in 2022 received a portion of the $12.3 million in funding, which is expected to provide more than 3,000 Maine workers with new apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship opportunities, more than doubling the number of Maine’s apprentices. 

The awards were backed by $11 million from the Governor’s Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan and $1.3 million from U.S. Department of Labor’s State Apprenticeship Expansion, Equity, and Innovation Grant. 

The first cohort was hosted by Gateway Community Services Maine in Portland.

Since graduation, the union has been working to get all of the pre-apprentices started in jobs, Sam Boss, director of apprenticeship and workforce equity at Maine AFL-CIO, told Mainebiz.

“We’ve had some great successes already,” he said.

Three now have jobs and more have submitted applications for apprenticeships. The union helps to figure out transportation and where to apply for jobs, he added.

Better 'pathways'

The goal of the academy, Boss said, is to create better pathways for people who have been historically underrepresented in apprenticeships in various unions. 

“Apprenticeships are common paths to many trades,” Boss said. “We’re trying to make those pathways accessible.”

Apprenticeships, he continued, are a great way to learn skills that are highly valuable and will get workers good wages, benefits and pensions. Often, those positions go to people who are already connected to a union, he said. The Maine AFL-CIO is looking to connect others to career opportunities.

The pre-apprenticeships program, he said, recognizes that many people might not have a ton of experience or opportunities to get the education and skills they need in order to thrive once they get into an apprenticeship. The academy’s intensive program is designed not only to give participants certifications and training, but to help them build a sense of community with others who will be apprentices. 

“And we work with them once they’re out of the program to help them land in the workforce,” he added. “We make sure they can succeed.”

After about a month of recruiting for the academy’s first cohort, there were about 70 applications. Many were from people who had been laid off from other jobs. Several participants who were asylum-seekers had significant experience in the building trades in their home countries, noted Boss. 

The next cohort is scheduled to run from July 10 through Aug. 11 at the IBEW Local 567 electricians union training center in Lewiston. The application period is open this month.

“Lots of people are here and ready to work,” he added.

The program is supported through a grant from the Maine Department of Labor. 

“I am extremely excited about the opportunities this training experience has presented, and also very thankful for the chance to make a lifetime career," said pre-apprenticeship graduate Amy Doak. “The union has found good-paying work for many of us already, which is very promising for those who will take advantage of this program in the future.”

After four weeks of intensive training, the pre-apprentices receive certifications for industry-recognized credentials, including OSHA-10, First-Aid/CPR/AED, Asbestos Awareness, Confined Space Entry. The certifications provide a foundation for registered apprenticeships with construction trade unions and a pathway to careers. 

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