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UAW seeks to grow skilled trades apprentice programs

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Lincoln Park — Randy Jercick passed an exam to get into Ford Motor Co.’s apprentice program more than a decade ago, but had almost given up hope that he’d ever get a chance to become an electrician.

Six months ago, the 24-year Ford employee, who works at the automaker’s Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Missouri, was notified he was in.

Jercick, 46, will move off the production line to shadow a journeyman electrician for four years at the plant that builds Ford F-150 pickups and Transit vans.

“It’s a more stable future for me,” he said during a recent three-week visit to the UAW-Ford Technical Training Center here, a nondescript warehouse building that formerly was a Ford glass prototype factory.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be laid off again.”

Ford, General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles run jointly administered apprentice programs with the UAW. The union hopes to expand the programs, which were dormant for several years leading up to and immediately following the economic downturn. Securing and growing the programs, as well as skilled trades positions that have shrunk following the recession, will be part of upcoming contract negotiations between the UAW and automakers this summer.

The apprentice programs pay to train and develop workers for key and higher-paying skilled trades positions such as tool-and-die makers, millwrights, plumber/pipefitters and toolmakers.

Union members are concerned about the scores of skilled trades workers who could retire at any time. They don’t want to see the jobs, which pay $32 an hour or more, contracted out to non-union members. The automakers, however, are cautious about growing their apprenticeship programs too much. During the recession, the programs weren’t active and many skilled trades workers transferred into production jobs or were retrained for other trades.

Ford has about 390 apprentices in its program. GM has just more than 100 and FCA has 23, according to the carmakers. Each company has thousands of skilled trades workers; at GM, more than half of the roughly 8,500 workers are eligible to retire.

At GM’s Flint Engine North Plant, 99 of the plant’s 101 skilled trades workers are eligible to retire, said UAW Local 599 President Dan Reyes. His plant has no apprentices, nor has anyone been tested for the apprentice program. He sees that as a critical issue.

“It’s a companywide problem,” he said. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to strengthen our apprenticeship program.”

Reyes said skilled trades workers are necessary to a plant’s daily operations and are needed to maintain machinery. He said it’s “inevitable” that GM will have a mass exodus of retiring skilled trades workers.

“What we’re hoping to prevent is a mass outsourcing of work that’s been traditionally ours,” he said.

Four-year programs

At GM, a majority of its apprentices work in engineering trades, such as making models, concept cars or tooling fixtures. The automaker added no apprentices from about 2005 to 2011 and it has hundreds of skilled trades workers who are assigned to production jobs.

Spokesman Bill Grotz said the Detroit automaker’s apprentice program, which has a history dating back more than 60 years, said GM may add apprentices as workers retire. “As folks retire and move on … we see this as a continuing with the program and growing it to a certain extent as the needs of the business dictate,” he said.

The apprentice programs take about four years to complete. They include about 575 hours in the classroom and 8,000 hours of learning experience on the shop floor. Apprentices get pay increases toward the top pay for their skilled trades classification as they increase their skills. The automakers pay for their schooling and on-the-job-training hours.

Ruben King, 48, of Lee Summit, Missouri, who has worked at Ford’s Kansas City Assembly Plant for 16 years, said it’s well worth it.

“The best thing is getting off the line,” said King, an electrician apprentice, who was among a group from Kansas City Assembly and Woodhaven Forging. He learned skills such as how to bend conduit, read electrical prints, and run and troubleshoot simulated machines during a recent three-week training session at Ford’s training center.

Longtime Ford worker Reggie Anderson, 48, of Raytown, Missouri, who also works at Ford’s Kansas City plant, said he was attracted to skilled trades training because of the job’s higher pay and learning a new skill that he “can use outside of Ford as well.”

Ford to add 200 apprentices

Ford has run an apprentice program with the UAW since 1941. Stacey Allerton, director of Ford’s U.S. labor affairs, said the Dearborn-based automaker plans to continue the program, as its assembly plants have become more technical with automation and robots. Most apprentices are studying to be electricians who would work with sophisticated equipment. Some get advanced training related to programming equipment.

Ford plans to add 200 or so apprentices by the end of the year, Allerton said.

“It is frankly more difficult to find skilled people in the labor pool, so it makes sense to us to be developing and training our existing employees to be capable of performing that work,” Allerton said.

The UAW also is working with Detroit-area schools to teach students about good-paying skilled trades jobs. The UAW-Ford Technical Training Center hosts summer programs for high-schoolers about skilled trades, said UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles.

“The risk is not enough skilled trades period — not just at Ford, but throughout the country,” Settles said, adding he wants Ford’s apprentice program to grow.

FCA, through spokeswoman Jodi Tinson, declined to comment on its apprentice program.