For decades, America’s construction unions’ apprenticeship programs have been the gold standard for empowering workers to thrive in the construction industry. Now unions in a handful of states, including Minnesota, are pioneering a similar model for workers in the manufacturing sector. It’s called the Industrial Manufacturing Technician (IMT) Apprenticeship and for the last five years, the Minnesota AFL-CIO and its educational organization called the Minnesota Training Partnership (MTP), have been working with unions and employers to train and certify manufacturing workers.
“With baby boomers retiring and shop no longer being taught in many high schools, we needed to find a way to maintain and expand Minnesota’s skilled manufacturing workforce while offering new opportunities to young workers and new Americans, said Todd Dahlstrom, Director of Organizing and Growth for the Minnesota AFL-CIO. “[Minnesota AFL-CIO] President Bill McCarthy saw the need to expand the Labor Movement’s role in workforce development and made implementing IMT in Minnesota a top priority.”
The IMT, pioneered on the national level by the AFL-CIO’s Working for America Institute, is rolled out at individual worksites in a partnership between the MTP, the local union representing workers, the employer, and a sponsoring educational institution (Pine Technical and Anoka Ramsey Community Colleges). Apprentices go through the 18-month program that involves two hours of weekly classroom time along with homework and tests and 2700 hours of specialized shop floor work. By graduation, apprentices will have earned their journeyperson certification and transferrable college credits.
Over the past five years, the MN AFL-CIO/MTP has partnered with four unions and 21 employers to graduate more than 250 apprentices. Jerome Balsimo, Executive Director of the Minnesota Training Partnership said the IMT is not only a benefit for employers but also unions.
“It gives workers a better connection to their union and provides an even bigger incentive for people to work union beyond the better wages and benefits,” Balsimo said.
Here in Minnesota, the IMT became a lifeline for workers at the now-shuddered Electrolux plant in St. Cloud. When Electrolux gave a two-year notice the plant would close, the Minnesota AFL-CIO and International Association of Machinists Local Lodge 623 moved to offer the IMT apprenticeship for workers who wanted to increase their skill base before the plant closed.
For Dahlstrom, making IMT available for Electrolux workers was personal. “I worked 11 years in a boxboard mill and learned how to work cutting machines and printers, then my plant closed. I had no certifications whatsoever to make myself marketable for a new job. If I had IMT, I would have had seven certifications and a journeyperson’s card,” he said.
37 Electrolux workers enrolled and graduated with new certifications and college credit. Graduate Joe Baratta told the St. Cloud Times last year, “IMT specifically has given all of us a crash course in what college will be like if we are continuing our education later. For those who want to get back into the workforce as soon as possible, because of their new education, they should be set up to move equal or up from their current roles into new ones quickly."