By Tom Conway
USW International President
Nick Kessler lived paycheck to paycheck — eking life out of his bald tires, “praying to God nothing broke” at home — until he landed a union position at U.S. Steel in Granite City, Ill., three years ago.
While that job changed his life, Kessler didn’t stop there. He also took advantage of free training, provided under the United Steelworkers (USW) contract with the company, to advance to a highly skilled electrician’s role that provides even more security for his wife and young son.
President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan would make that kind of transformative opportunity available to all, giving millions of workers greater access to family-sustaining jobs while helping the nation rebuild the middle class.
Among many other provisions, Biden’s plan would provide access to two years of tuition-free community college and training to every American.
It’s essential that Congress now pass legislation that enacts the plan and paves the way for more Americans to obtain associate degrees, commercial driver’s licenses or professional certifications in the skilled trades and other crucial fields.
“Your education is something nobody can ever take from you,” said Kessler, a member of USW Local 1899, noting skills like his enhance his employment prospects no matter where he lives.
“The electricians and the plumbers and the carpenters and the welders are the ones that keep everything going,” he observed. “The demand for the trades is the highest that it’s been in years.”
And the demand will only grow exponentially under the American Jobs Plan, the president’s call to invest nearly $2 trillion in infrastructure, including roads and bridges, locks and dams, schools and airports, manufacturing facilities, the electric grid, new energy systems and communication networks.
These long-overdue infrastructure investments, long championed by the USW, will lift America out of the COVID-19 recession, rebuild the economy and strengthen the country for the next crisis.
The nation will need pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, welders and other skilled workers not only to construct roads and refurbish buildings but to fill highly technical jobs like Kessler’s in steel mills, foundries and other plants that manufacture the materials and equipment for infrastructure projects.
According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the infrastructure program would create or sustain 15 million jobs over 10 years. Workers could obtain the skills needed for many of those jobs with six months of training or less.
Providing workers with a pathway for that upskilling will be essential to meeting the nation’s infrastructure needs. While union members often receive training benefits through their contracts, many Americans currently lack those opportunities.
Before joining the USW at U.S. Steel, for example, Kessler took electrician’s classes at a community college but found the tuition too expensive to complete the program on his own.
Another Steelworker, Erik Boyer, picked up mechanical skills as best he could while working on cars in his backyard.
Now, after accepting a job at Cleveland-Cliffs’ New Carlisle (Ind.) Works and testing into the mechanical program, Boyer will get the combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job training he needs to formalize and complete his education in a year to 14 months.
He knows many more Americans would consider careers in the trades if they knew that the jobs and training were available to them.
“That opens things up to a lot of people,” Boyer, a member of USW Local 9231, said of Biden’s college and training proposal. “It does provide answers to a lot of problems.”
USW Local 14581 in Elkhorn City, Ky., operates an on-the-job training program with decades of success putting workers into family-sustaining highway construction jobs like truck drivers, carpenters, drillers, blasters and grader and roller operators.
Local President Gypsy Cantrell realizes that many more residents would benefit from the program — now supported by government agencies and contractors — and hopes that funds from the American Families Plan will enable her to expand it.
Among other possibilities, she would like to establish a training center so she can begin offering classroom instruction, install equipment simulators and bring in retired union members to offer their expertise. She said some trainees, like carpenters, could even put their skills to use in community-service projects as part of an enhanced curriculum.
“The need is there,” Cantrell said, noting an expanded program would enable the local to provide skilled workers for new projects generated through Biden’s infrastructure push.
Women and workers of color long have fought for equitable opportunities in the nation’s economy, and the education benefits afforded by the American Families Plan would help to level the playing field.
An expansion of the Local 14581 training program, for example, would boost the union’s longstanding efforts to place struggling residents like DeDe Wallace in family-sustaining jobs. Wallace’s training as a grader operator enabled her to raise three grandchildren after her husband, Ricky, became disabled and later died.
“I don’t know what would have happened to them if I hadn’t been able to take care of them,” Wallace, who retired in 2018, said of her grown and successful grandkids.
Because of his past struggles, Kessler appreciates what he has now all the more.
He’s happy to be able to provide for his family. But he’s also proud to wield skills essential to the nation’s prosperity.
“It’s a pretty great career,” he said.