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Electrician apprentice training center reopens under new normal, with social distancing and arrows on the floor

COURTEY: IBEW  - Social distancing is the new norm at the NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Center (NIETC), the newly reopened electrician school near the Portland airport.

Leaders at the NECA-IBEW Electrical Training Center (NIETC) consider themselves extremely fortunate that they completed the Northeast Portland center's expansion earlier this year, although for different reasons than they initially expected.

Construction on the expansion began late last year to meet demand driven by growth in the electrical industry in the Northwest. Enrollment in the center's apprenticeship program hit 1,000 students, and the 54,000-square-foot center was running out of space for meetings, aptitude testing, applicant interviews, continuing education classes and other industry-related functions.

Schommer & Sons Inc. worked with the center to add 8,500 square feet of space that houses two new classrooms, an additional multiuse lab and more restrooms to the building, which already featured 17 classrooms and three large labs. A ribbon cutting ceremony was scheduled for April.

But in mid-March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not only was the celebration put on hold but the center had to shut its doors completely. Staff spent three months crafting a plan to reopen the center in some fashion and, starting June 22, began offering apprentices a way to continue their training.

"When we started planning, we didn't know the end result of the virus, but we knew what might happen. We headed down that road, understanding that our planning might end up being a wasted effort," said NIETC Executive Director Rod Belisle. "But here we are. I am confident that it was all worthwhile."

During the center's normal operations, apprentices spend one day a week in class for 11 weeks, twice a year. The other four days of those weeks are spent on jobsites learning under the supervision of journeymen. Depending on the program they are in, apprentices are enrolled in either three, four or five years of classroom and jobsite training. As a result of the closure, all NIETC classes have been delayed a semester.

Under the new plan, the center's 1,000 apprentices have been broken into two groups of 500 who will rotate semesters. About 100 will attend classes each weekday, with each class having no more than 15 students. The 500 apprentices who are not taking classes work on jobsites.

One semester delay

Classrooms are prepared so that all students will maintain physical distancing while in class. The training center will utilize its largest rooms and even the auditorium as a classroom to accomplish that.

"One-way traffic will be used in and out of classrooms," said NIETC Safety Director Barry Moreland. "Many labs have been modified to reduce the number of students in the lab at a given time, and we have had to put up barriers or relocate lab materials for further safety."

Moreland added, "We have had to address some basic policies, such as not allowing class-day changes because the number of students in class will be specifically allocated, and we can't allow overflow like we may have done in the past. Scheduling is our biggest challenge and highest priority."

The training center will still be closed to the outside public. Entrance and exit policies have been established for students, along with health questionnaires and contact tracing forms that must be signed every day of class.

The training center also offers continuing education programs for journeymen, but for now all in-person classes have been canceled. Because of the importance of these programs, the Zoom video meeting platform has been used to conduct some classes, but enrollment must be limited. NIETC hopes to expand these opportunities over time.

No continuing ed for journeymen for now

Moreland said that, despite the challenges for both students and instructors, overall the transition has gone well. Some students who had been on furlough from jobsites and were staying home for three months were apprehensive about returning to a social setting at the center, while others who had continued working during the lockdown were accustomed to physical distancing under COVID-19 protocols on jobsites.

"There were some adjustments, like maneuvers while walking down hallways and maintaining social distance while talking, but the transition has gone really well," he said.

One big difference is the way apprentices train together. As an example, before the pandemic apprentices could work in pairs on lab projects such as troubleshooting problems while repairing a fire alarm panel. Now they must work individually in each lab station. The advantage is that each apprentice must rely on their own knowledge to complete lab work but, Moreland noted, a certain learning dynamic is lost when students are not allowed to collaborate.

"This is going to be our beta test and when this term is over we'll regroup and have a meeting with the instructors to talk about any areas we can improve upon," he said.

Melody Finnemore is a contract writer who regularly contributes to the Business Tribune. She can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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