IT WASN'T UNTIL HIS JUNIOR YEAR AT JOLIET Central High School that Frank DiDomenico found subjects that sparked his interest: welding, electronics. carpentry and, particularly, automotive technology. That summer, he landed a paid construction job through the Three Rivers Education for Employment System's school-to-apprenticeship program (STA). This program provides students with the opportunity to earn union wages at union jobsites during the summer of their junior year. DiDomenico discovered he could turn his hobby into a career and is now a second-year heavy-equipment mechanic apprentice at Patten Trucking.
"I would have never even thought about what I'm doing if it weren't for STA," 19-year-old DiDomenico says. "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. This is my passion."
STA coordinators call DiDomenico a success story of their four-year-old program, which is based at 13 schools, including two area career centers, in Will and Grundy Counties and parts of Cook County, about 40 miles south of Chicago.
DiDomenico's supervisor, Joey Giannetto, service manager at Patten Tractor, agrees, noting that, "Frank is one of the better skilled workers I've seen. He's willing to do whatever it takes to take care of the customer."
Across Illinois, in places where unions thrive, construction industry professionals and career and technical education (CTE) teachers of building trades promote similar initiatives to lure students such as DiDomenico into fields that include carpentry, electrical work and ironworking. From career fairs to work-based learning programs, the outreach efforts introduce teens to construction careers, while providing union-supported contractors with qualified candidates for future employment.
STA Coordinator Don Kaufman says, "For people who want to get into this type of trade, it's an excellent opportunity. We get the very best ... they're top notch because we put them through all the hoops. They must have good grades, superior attendance, positive attitudes and excellent references."
Doug Reibel, equipment manager for TJ Lambrecht of Joliet, a major earth-moving company, agrees. "We have employed four STA students over the past four summers and have been extremely pleased with their ability, work ethic and overall dependability," says Reibel. "We began at 6:00 a.m., and they were invariably on time. This reflects favorably on their classroom preparation. We also have an exceptional working relationship with Operating Engineers Local 150 and their apprentice coordinator. We look forward to having another CTE student next year, as well as in years to come."
To prepare workers, the construction industry provides hands-on training through three- to five-year apprenticeships.
In unionized areas, these apprenticeships provide skilled new workers to replace retiring baby boomers, says Tim Garvey, executive director of the O'Fallon-based Southern Illinois Construction Advancement Program (SICAP), which promotes apprenticeship programs.
Programs such as STA and the career fairs SICAP promotes aim to spark interest in apprenticeships before students graduate from high school.
"We want people who are well prepared to enter our industry," Garvey says. "The need for quality workers is growing."
Construction employment has grown 32 percent in the past 10 years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"We know the graying of America is going to be affecting the building trades," says Thomas W. Dardis, executive director of the Three Rivers Construction Alliance, a labor-management cooperative for the industry. "We want to make sure we've got a good supply of quality, competent young people out there ready to build the next set of schools, hospitals and petrochemical plants."
Career and technical education coordinators say their programs help the industry achieve that mission. …