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Chicago Local Raises the Bar For Outside Training Excellence

Since the 1960s, thousands of Chicago Local 9's apprentices and experienced journeymen alike benefited from the quality courses that the local provided at its Forest Park training center.

"But effectively educating the electrical workers of tomorrow requires a modern training facility," said Local 9 Business Manager Bill Niesman. Even as the Forest Park center underwent occasional upgrades over the years, he said, modernizing it had been hard to do, with the aging facility hemmed in by its neighbors.

The local's leaders selected a suitable site in University Park and worked with their partners at the Middle States Electrical Contractors Association (MSECA) to design and build a state-of-the-art campus that would be flexible enough to meet the local's current and future training needs.

"The electrical industry continues to change, so our training needs to change right along with it," said IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson, who attended the new center's open house on August 27. "It's great to watch Local 9 and others like it continuing to build, evolve and invest to stay ahead of those changes."

The August event commemorated the completion of construction at University Park, which had been underway for the last three years. "We needed more room to enhance our training, especially for operating outside lineman courses, crane certification, and so on," Niesman said — and Local 9's 100-acre training center easily meets those requirements.

The facility's campus now consists of four buildings in the southern end of the local's jurisdiction.

"You could fit our old facility inside the garage," said Local 9 Assistant Business Manager John Burkard.

The grand opening ceremony in August gave the local a chance to show off the facility to Stephenson and a variety of officials and dignitaries, Niesman said, with an eye toward forming partnerships with other IBEW locals and unions that might take advantage of what the University Park campus has to offer.

"One advantage of this new location is it gives us the flexibility to train at night, on our own schedule," he said.

Millions of northeastern Illinois drivers and commuters may not realize just how much they rely on Local 9's 2,700 members, who support clients ranging from the City of Chicago and the Chicago Transit Authority to line-clearance tree-trimming work for Commonwealth Edison contractors.

The new center's extra space provided Local 9 with plenty of room to install several rows of utility poles, life-size working traffic light systems and fully operating railroad signal and crossing mockups. Here, members can safely learn at their own pace.

"We believe that the foundation of protecting our jurisdiction begins with training," Burkard said. "We want to put our apprentices in a position to be successful."

Courses are conducted in everything from basic lineman apprenticeship training to a continuing education program that covers nearly two-dozen fields such as fiber optics testing, rigging and excavation safety.

"As we say every year when the apprentices graduate, 'You're not done with your education — you've just begun,'" said Local 9 Training Director Dennis Carduff. "You always have to move forward."

Burkard noted that the local also has partnered with American Technical Publishers to help revamp the training curriculum.

"It's easy to put up bricks and mortar," he said. "What we really want is the gold standard on the outside but the platinum education on the inside."

The center is not just impressing Local 9's members. A panel of judges from the Chicago Building Congress honored it on May 22 with a 2018 Merit Award for its design, construction quality, community impact and safety record.

"Electrical workers in this quickly changing world need a modern facility," Niesman said. "By investing in training today, we're better preparing our members for tackling tomorrow's needs."