Modern Trades: Training Electricians to Power the Future

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A digital billboard at the entrance to the Electrical Training Institute in Commerce; photos on this page by Frances Anderton.

We’ve launched a series called “Modern Trades” about the skilled manufacturing and construction jobs in the U.S. that are changing as a result of new technologies.

We wanted to know, what is the path to get to those jobs? And have we been putting too much emphasis on the college track for people who might rather work with their brain — and their hands?

Solar panels above the parking garage of the ETI.
Solar panels above the parking garage of the ETI.

We began our series with writer and filmmaker Kelly Candaele. He’s been a longtime advocate for vocational education. Many trades offer apprenticeship training programs – sheet metal workers, pipe fitters, cement masons – but Kelly highlighted one program in particular.

“One of the most interesting ones is called the Electrical Training Institute, in the city of Commerce,” Candaele said.

“There are currently 1,500 apprentices there that are learning all of these new technologies for electrical work. Whether it’s photovoltaic, whether it’s lighting systems that kind of control themselves through knowing how much sun is coming into a room and thereby adjusting the lights that are turned on in that room by themselves. There’s tinted glass that they’re utilizing there that also adjusts itself if the sun is brighter or the sun is darker.

So these are really fantastic technologies that are being utilized in new buildings these days. And the tradespeople that are actually building these things and installing them are being taught these skills at these apprenticeship schools.”

The institute is what’s known as a joint labor management training apprenticeship program. The program is funded by a union, The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11, and an industry group, the National Electrical Contractors Association. Students get a mix of classroom and on-the-job training. They pay zero tuition, and receive wages for their work during the day.

The institute’s training director, Brett Moss, gave us a tour and pointed out all the electrical innovations. The building that houses the Electrical Training Institute is being retrofitted to become a “net zero plus” building.

Light-sensitive windows limit the need for air-conditioning and heating inside ETI.
Light-sensitive windows limit the need for air-conditioning and heating inside ETI.

These include solar panels on the roofs, lithium-ion batteries, energy-efficient LED lighting and windows that darken when they sense daylight to keep the insides of buildings cool. All these things mean the institute will produce more energy than it uses. And the net zero building provides a unique learning experience for students.

“This building, it’s a living laboratory,” Moss said. “It’s not a static building. We haven’t built it, commissioned it and walked away. It’s something where we’re going to stay right on the very edge of technology. This is what tomorrow looks like. Everything that goes into this building, making it a net zero plus building, is at least a decade ahead of what commercial buildings will look like in the state of California. 2030, all commercial construction must be net zero. We’re going to be 14 years ahead of that.”

In a cavernous warehouse area, for example, stood what looked like regular traffic lights as well as the signs that tell you how long it’ll take to get from, say, downtown to the 405. And they use fiber optics and sensors to function smartly.

A circuit panel used to teach electrical students.
A circuit panel used to teach electrical students.

“We install the infrastructure out in the streets and out on the freeways. So you know, here in L.A., we see the signs, they give us X number of minutes to downtown or to the next interchange or whatever it might be. It’s our people that are putting in that infrastructure and allowing those signals to go downtown to the traffic control center and have those signs work,” Moss said.

The institute also uses a motion-triggered lighting system to cut down on wasted energy.

“That’s part of that smart building. We’re saving energy,” Moss said. “Until we walked into the space there was nobody here. No need to have the lights on if we’re not here. This is energy use that would make my mom and my grandma happy, right, because as a kid I was told if you’re not in the room, turn the lights off and close the door. All of that stuff, all of that’s coming into play here.”

These traffic signs and lights demonstrate how the work of an electrician has changed in recent years.

A traffic light used to teach electrical students how to wire transportation infrastructure.
A traffic light used to teach electrical students how to wire transportation infrastructure.

“The training program of today is not the training program that I went through,” Moss said. “It’s not the training program my father, he’s also an electrician, retired now, it’s certainly not my father’s training program. This apprenticeship program is light years ahead of what I went through. We had a little bit of technology but not what we’re doing now. No way.”

The 1,500 students training here to become electricians include recent high-school graduates and older students transitioning from other careers. Others are already licensed electricians seeking additional training. All are residents of Los Angeles County and surrounding counties.

Errol Cutley, 35, lives in Hawthorne and set upon the path towards a career as an electrician when he saw a team of construction workers setting up an electrical system. He approached them, got a business card, and went through the IBEW’s process of getting into ETI’s program. He said he finds the work more interesting than he initially expected.

Errol Cutley
Errol Cutley

“It’s more detailed and more intricate than I actually thought it would be,” Cutley said. “Once I got in I started to see how detailed, and how instead of just providing power, you have to provide the pathway for the power to travel.”

Cutley did not know that such a career was available when he was a high school student. He said that such jobs should be promoted to students.

“Shop classes are being cut. They’re promoting more college and I don’t take anything away from college. However I believe that those shop classes should be encouraged more,” Cutley said. “One thing that we’re doing here within the local, we have something called the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus. And one thing that we’re doing within the minority caucus is we’re actually mentoring, and we’re actually trying to put together a program where we can go to schools and we can kind of tell them about the program and encourage the shops to be placed back into those schools so they can at least get a hands-on opportunity… Because a lot of people would prefer hands-on shop-type jobs or labor-intense jobs that are going to produce a great career for them.”

Hollie Enriquez
Hollie Enriquez

These students are training for a new generation of buildings that will be energy efficient and can be controlled remotely, so windows can be opened, the thermostat adjusted, ovens preheated and sensors measured from your smartphone.

One of Errol’s classmates, Hollie Enriquez, is 38 and lives in Paramount. She transitioned from a career in social work and child development to become an electrician. She specifically wants to work in sustainable energy and transportation. During her first year as a student at ETI, she worked on the Expo Line from USC to Santa Monica.

“They sent me out there when, I think I was just barely seven months in as an apprentice,” Enriquez said. “And what they said is, you know, you don’t have any experience with train control or motor control and they’re looking for an apprentice, and you seem like you’re doing well in your schooling. So they sent me out for the experience and I started out with little motor controls, building the gates, doing a little bit of wiring, CAD welding, working in the substations. They watched me, of course, the journeymen and foremen. They see how you progress and how quick you learn.”

Daniel Huizar
Daniel Huizar

Both Enriquez and Cutley decided to become electricians in their 30s. But plenty of students start out soon after graduating high school. Daniel Huizar, 22, is from Whittier and decided to become an electrician after seeing his uncle do the work. He wishes such work was promoted in high school.

“In high school they try to push university on us. It’s like, that’s the way to go. If you don’t like doing that kind of stuff you’re kind of stuck where it’s like, well, it doesn’t interest me,” Huizar said. “So this is another career where you can like working with your hands. And you can make a great career out of it.”

Andy Hoeks, also a new student, is 20 years old and from Burbank.

“I actually just wanted to be electrician just from a kid I guess. Just, always putting things together, wanting to know why things work. I mean power is just an incredible thing to begin with. It’s an invisible force that just drives so much,” Hoeks said.

Andy Hoeks
Andy Hoeks

Being an electrician, Hoeks said, is “definitely the way to go if you’re looking for a job that, you want to work hard and you want to make some good money. This is definitely the place to be. Electricians are, you know, we’re kind of the top of the food chain. So it’s really cool to go in a job site andbe the top of the food chain. Everybody’s looking at you, ‘Hey Sparky,’ or stuff like that. So it’s pretty cool just to be up there where people are looking up to you, but keep having that mutual respect for one another.”

DnA will continue to look at “Modern Trades” on future episodes. Let us know if you are schooled in a trade and how you got there, by emailing us.