The saying, "If you can't see it, you can't be it," could apply to many of the young people who come through Grace-Mar's doors when it comes to choosing a career. So, Charlotte, N.C., Local 379 is helping them to "see" themselves as union electricians.
"Most of these kids don't know what they want to do just yet, so we show them a way to make a good living as an electrician," said Local 379 organizer Eddie Byrams.
Grace-Mar is a local organization that works with young people aged 16-24 who are no longer affiliated with a school. One of their programs is YouthBuild, a national program run by a grant from the Department of Labor. The pre-apprenticeship offers participants an introduction to the trades, including electrical, which is where Local 379 comes in.
"It's a pleasure working with the young adults in the Grace-Mar program," said Local 379 Business Manager Scott Thrower. "I hope our brothers and sisters inspire many of them to consider a career in the IBEW."
The relationship between the two partners began in 2019 when Grace-Mar reached out to Local 379 to help them with the program. At first it was mostly Byrams going out and talking to the youth. Now, there's a full-fledged pre-apprenticeship that comes with the chance to apply for a formal apprenticeship with Local 379.
"We give them an avenue, a way to improve themselves," Byrams said. "And it's not just electrical, it's also moral and intellectual."
The pre-apprenticeship is a six-month program that comes with a stipend, leadership training and high school credentialing among numerous other wraparound services to ensure that participants have the support they need to be successful. Those services run the gamut from resume writing and interviewing to financial counseling. Grace-Mar also offers child care, help with transportation costs and mental health counseling if needed.
"Those soft skills are essential," said Grace-Mar co-founder Grace Smith. "They come out not just with a certificate, but with a new outlook, a new brand, and a new attitude."
For a lot of Grace-Mar's participants, most of whom are people of color, the trades often just aren't on their radar.
"Seeing successful minorities is important," Byrams said. "For a lot of young people of color there's an assumption, almost like it's in the air, that the trades aren't for them."
Fortunately, that assumption is being challenged. Thanks to grant funding, Grace-Mar was able to acquire a home that needed renovating and could double as a hands-on classroom where Byrams and others gave the young men and women a taste of the trade.
"The kids loved it," said Grace-Mar co-founder Kenny Smith. "The electricians were very approachable. They didn't talk down to them, they talked to them. They brought that human aspect that says, 'I'm like you.'"
The YouthBuild program has already sent about four students to Local 379's program, Kenny Smith said, and they're not done yet.
"These are kids who like working with their hands," Kenny Smith said. "They like being in the field and sweating, not at a desk with books. They want to move and get up and go."
With the average age of an electrician only going up, recruiting young people to the trade is an important task for any local. And being in the community, being as visible as possible, is a benefit to both Grace-Mar participants as well as Local 379.
"Hopefully we'll become a household name," Byrams said.
But even if not, Byrams says working with the young participants is a reward in and of itself.
"It's an honor and a privilege to be able to teach our craft," Byrams said. "It's a true pleasure of the soul to convey my passion to these young people."
Byrams noted that Grace-Mar's mission is about education, not unlike an IBEW training program. And a lot of it comes down to what someone is exposed to, to what you know is even possible.
"It's all about exposure. The trades aren't in schools anymore and there aren't always electricians or other tradespeople in the neighborhood where these kids are growing up," Grace Smith said. "Local 379 has been a great partner for us."
Casting a wider net for apprentices is something that both Grace-Mar and Local 379 can benefit from. For Grace-Mar, the goal is to train up and send viable candidates to Local 379, and for Local 379, it gives them a younger, more diverse workforce. And of course, for the students themselves it provides an opportunity to learn a trade that can turn into an excellent career — one they can support a family on. And that creates a ripple effect throughout the community.
"We're showing individuals a different area of interest, and who knows where they'll take it," Byrams said. "The IBEW has taken me places I never thought I'd go. Maybe that will be someone else someday too."