IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson (left) participated in a Business Roundtable panel discussion in Columbus this week, promoting the role unions can play in helping companies solve their labor shortage problems.

IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson was in Columbus this week to promote the role unions can play in helping companies solve their labor shortage problems.

"Forming strategic partnerships to provide apprenticeship programs can help pave the way for workers to get the right kind of training for today’s jobs and for the ones that will be created in the coming years,” Stephenson said. “Because we work very closely with many companies, we want to make sure we provide the skills our contractors need to go and do construction work for those businesses.”

About 100 labor, business, and education leaders from around Ohio took part in the two-day meeting, held at American Electric Power’s headquarters in the state’s capital. It was the first of several Workplace Partnership Initiative sessions planned for cities across the U.S. by Business Roundtable, which describes itself as an association of chief executive officers from the country’s leading companies.

On hand to support President Stephenson were International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth Cooper, Fourth District International Vice President Brian Malloy (who also participated in a breakout panel discussion), and Utility Department Director Donnie Colston.

Stephenson touted the union’s many training centers — 20 in the Buckeye State alone —that benefit journeymen electrical workers and apprentices across the United States and Canada.

“Education is critical,” he said. “That’s why national standards are taught at all of our facilities, because it gives employers a high degree of confidence that IBEW members will be fully versed in them, no matter where they were trained or where they might go for work.”

Some of these training centers operate alongside colleges and other educational institutions, Stephenson said, offering to journeymen and apprentices courses that evolve to keep up with rapid technological advances. Many centers offer advanced placement programs for high school students and veterans, he said.

“We have more than 40,000 apprentices currently in our system,” he said. “But we know that we need to reach out now to find applicants for next year and the year after that, always keeping in mind what employers are looking for and what kinds of skills applicants need in order to be successful in interviews for jobs in the trades.”

Business Roundtable leaders hope discussions like these will eventually spur school systems to craft flexible training programs designed to attract and prepare a diverse array of students for jobs in a variety of fields and trades.

“The goal is to really form partnerships between the corporate sector and higher education to scale up programs that will ultimately produce people who can take the jobs that our companies have available,” said Dane Linn, Business Roundtable’s vice president of workforce and education.

Stephenson noted that IBEW’s signatory contractors and business partners have long recognized that proper education is an investment that benefits all parties involved. As a result, training expenses are covered by our collective-bargaining agreements, meaning there is no cost to participants — or to taxpayers.

The IBEW represents nearly two-thirds of AEP’s workers across 11 central U.S. states, and President Stephenson thanked the utility’s chief executive officer, Nick Akins, for insisting that the union participate in this week’s meeting.

“We have to take a leadership role in terms of bringing the parties together to focus in on this issue,” Akins said. About 4,000 of AEP’s 18,000 employees are expected to retire by 2024, he said, and that makes locating skilled men and women who can replace them crucial.

Future regional roundtable kick-offs are planned for Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Chicago, and the New York City and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas.