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Trades Lift Minority Groups

Apprenticeships empower women, people of color

Sonda Brown, a first-term apprentice electrician, found her way to the construction industry unexpectedly after working a desk job in an office. “After a few years, I grew tired of the monotonous job duties and wanted something different,” she said.

Construction is the third fastest growing industry in Oregon and a new study shows that union-led apprenticeship programs are finding success in the ability to empower women and people of color to build skill sets to join the industry.

Career training programs backed by local labor groups like the International Brotherhood of

Electrical Workers (IBEW) are leading in diversity and showing higher success rates all around compared to nonunion programs, according to the research conducted through the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center.

Women and people of color were significantly more likely to complete their programs in a union apprenticeship compared to a nonunion apprenticeship, and they were more than twice as likely to enter a high-wage trade if they go through a union apprenticeship program, the study finds.

More specifically, 46% of women in union programs gain employment in the trades with an average hourly wage of $40 or higher, compared to nonunion programs in which employed just 19% of female workers that reached that wage.

Sonda Brown, a member of the Black community, became a first-term apprentice in IBEW Local 48’s Inside Commercial and Industrial Program, unexpectedly, after working a desk job in an office.

“Before joining the apprenticeship program, I worked in an office setting as a project manager,” Brown said. “After a few years, I grew tired of the monotonous job duties and wanted something different.”

After considering her mechanical skills and researching alternative career options, Brown decided to pursue a career path as an electrician, but first needed to learn the trade at an affordable price. That’s when she found NECA-IBEW, its electrical training center in northeast Portland, and union-led apprenticeship program.

“I was most intrigued that our union and training center share similar values as I do,” Brown said. “It has a reputation for integrity and fostering unity and diversity in the electrical industry while emphasizing productivity to meet our customers’ needs.”

Brown is involved in the union’s Electrical Workers Minority Caucus (EWMC), a group known for fostering equity and diversity in the program and community.

“As a woman of color, the EWMC has been instrumental in providing support throughout my apprenticeship by allowing me to network with other minorities and receive mentorship from those who have traveled similar paths as I currently am,” Brown said. “We also participate in outreach events to advance the mission of inclusion and equal opportunity for those in underrepresented areas in our communities.”

It’s clear that having initiatives like EWMC, and a history of higher success rates, attracts minority groups to the union apprenticeships, even making them preferential.

Peter Chimuku will graduate this summer from a five-year electrical apprentice program. He is grateful for the support and opportunities offered.

“I’m an African American male who has a criminal history, and walking in that building I didn’t feel like I stuck out like a sore thumb,” Chimuku said. “I was welcomed, and everybody encouraged me and helped me throughout the whole program. They constantly helped me with schooling, filling out forms, everything since the beginning, and I’m very appreciative.”

Becoming a union electrician has opened doors for Chimuku and his family.

“It has allowed me to be able to provide for my family and be able to give them health care,” Chimuku said. “There’s so much I can thank the union for, for giving me this opportunity.”

According to Larissa Petrucci, one of the study’s lead researches, “unions play an important role in reducing gender and race discrimination,” and without them, women and BIPOC workers will continue to face persistent barriers in the industry.

Additional investment in union apprenticeship programs support the construction industry’s stated goal of making positive strides towards greater equity and inclusion.

Petrucci says there has never been a better time to prepare for a career in trades that are financially rewarding and personally satisfying.

At the nationally acclaimed NECA/IBEW Local 48 Electrical Apprenticeship Training Program, apprentices learn from the most respected and experienced instructors and in the nation’s most technologically advanced facility.

Learn more about the apprenticeship program at

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