Making the adjustment: Union apprenticeship programs get creative to navigate COVID-19 safely

Ironworkers Local 512 apprentice Travis Strugis gave Gov. Tim Walz a demonstration on the union’s training floor after Walz signed an infrastructure jobs bill in October.

Early December is usually a festive time at Cement Masons Local 633’s facility in New Brighton. The union’s cement mason and plasterer apprentices deck the training hall with a holiday display that spotlights their budding mastery of the craft, just in time for the union’s holiday party.

Not this year, of course.

But while “Concrete Christmas” is on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cement Masons Local 633’s apprenticeship program is up and running. Local 633 and other Minnesota Building Trades unions have made adjustments big and small to keep their apprentices’ careers on track.

Safety has been the top priority for apprenticeship programs as they navigate the pandemic, just as it is on a union construction site.

“My No. 1 objective is keeping my staff and apprentices coming in here safe,” said Dean Mills, director of the Minnesota Laborers Training Center in Lino Lakes. “That’s first and foremost. We’re being innovative and creative about how we do things, doing the best we can to teach our members and help our contractors out.”

To that end, Building Trades unions have worked with state health regulators and the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry to ensure their curriculums are both safe and on par with the standards of registered apprenticeship.

The result isn’t always ideal, but what has been in 2020?

“It may not be wide open like we’d like it to be, but we’re at least covering the bare minimum,” Operating Engineers Local 49 Director of Training Eric Gulland said. “So when we do get the pandemic under control and open things up, we’re ready to go again.”

Unique programs, unique solutions 

Minnesota has over 180 registered apprenticeship programs, but most of the state’s 12,000 apprentices are enrolled in programs sponsored by Building Trades unions and their employers. Unions and contractors tailor their apprenticeship programs to meet the unique demands of their particular crafts.

No two union apprenticeship programs are the same, and no two programs have responded to COVID-19 the same way either. Union apprenticeship directors have had to consider enrollment numbers, available training space, curriculum needs and resources in decisions about how to proceed during the pandemic.

Cement Masons Local 633’s total enrollment in the apprenticeship program is around 90. With a 14,000-square-foot training center, the union decided it was safe to resume in-person programming this fall, but with several major changes.

Class sizes do not exceed 10 people. Masks are required, and apprentices and training staff maintain six feet of physical distance at all times. That means apprentices train less in crews, where they would work shoulder to shoulder, and more on individual projects.

“We’re also cleaning like we’ve never cleaned before,” Apprenticeship Coordinator Brian Farmer said.

At Local 49’s training facility in Hinckley, it’s the polar-opposite approach. The union has shifted the entirety of its apprenticeship curriculum online, except in cases where members need a certification to continue working. Even then, the union allows only five people to gather at one time in remote union halls across the region.

Local 49’s 400 apprentices, who train to operate heavy equipment, are sitting through a lot of Zoom meetings, Gulland said. But instructors have found creative ways to avoid “death by power point.”

During a recent class, Gulland said, one instructor hosted the meeting from a classroom while another filmed a live walk-around inspection of machinery. Apprentices dropped questions into the chat and got answers on the spot.

“The students definitely want to come up and hands-on run the equipment,” Gulland said. “But it seems like it’s worked out to keep them engaged and on track with their apprenticeship requirements during this time.”

The hybrid approach 

Other apprenticeship programs have taken a hybrid approach during the pandemic, combining online courses with limited in-person training.

Sheet Metal Workers Local 10’s 450 apprentices resumed in-person classes after Labor Day with daily temperature checks, masks, smaller class sizes and vigorous sanitizing. The union also has introduced night classes, helping stagger the time apprentices are in the facility.

The Laborers, too, have begun offering night classes and reducing class sizes, Mills said. To prevent clustering inside the union’s training center, each apprentice and instructor is required to enter through the door closest to their classroom or training bay.

While some apprentices have contracted COVID-19, Local 10 Training Coordinator Carl Zitzer said, they are doing the right thing to prevent it from spreading to fellow union members.

“We haven’t had anybody in the building who’s sick, fortunately,” Zitzer said. “We tell them to stay home, do what you’re supposed to do, and when you get back we’ll do what we have to do to get your time in.”

For union apprentices, training time is critical. State regulations require registered apprentices to complete a set number of training hours and work hours each year.

Because Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency order declared the construction industry essential, contractors have continued hiring apprentices throughout the pandemic. But like other schools, training centers halted in-person learning in March, forcing many union apprenticeship programs to make adjustments on the fly to get apprentices the training hours they needed.

“A lot of our apprentices’ pay raises are hinging on their related training hours,” Local 633’s Farmer said.

Shifting to remote 

At Local 10, where apprentices lost about eight weeks of scheduled classes in the spring, Zitzer credited the more “computer-savvy” members of his training staff for working with the Sheet Metal Workers international union to move classes online, focusing on parts of the curriculum that don’t require being together on the shop floor.

“These guys jumped right in and developed a bunch of really good stuff,” Zitzer said. “Our apprentices really enjoyed it because we really challenged them. They really had to be like a college student – reading stuff, taking tests, just like at the university.”

Training staff at the Laborers and Ironworkers Local 512, which likewise have shifted some curriculum online, said they were pleasantly surprised with how well online training worked for some aspects of their curriculums.

Pete Teigland, Local 512’s training director, said the online curriculum made the program more accessible for apprentices who don’t live near the Ironworkers’ training center in St. Paul. It also frees apprentices to accept work on projects farther away from the metro.

“Some of these guys drive 100 miles to get here for class after work,” he said.

“We actually took a negative and turned it into a positive,” Mills added. “We’ll definitely continue with some online options for apprentices moving forward, but what we do best is still contact training. Our craft is big on hands on.”

An investment in quality 

Most of the adjustments union apprenticeship programs have made during the pandemic have come at a cost. Cleaning supplies, software, training materials and thermometers aren’t free. Adding more classes to prevent crowding requires more instructional time.

That unions and their employers are absorbing those costs, apprenticeship coordinators said, is more proof of their commitment to training a world-class construction workforce in Minnesota.

“When we talked about what we were going to do after COVID hit, it was just like on the jobsite,” Teigland remembered. “When things are rough, put one foot in front of the other, and we’ll get through it.”

“I’ve been around a long time,” added Zitzer, a 43-year veteran of the Sheet Metal Workers. “The thing I’ve come to realize is guys like us aren’t going to walk away without completing their task, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re finding a different way to do it when the traditional way doesn’t work.”

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