Apprenticeship Coordinator Alton Wilkerson Answers Our Questions
By Evan Henerson
Local 11’s Apprenticeship Program draws admiration from far and wide. As one of the largest trade apprenticeship programs in the nation (with more than 1,700 students), Local 11’s program has laid the foundation for hundreds of future journeymen to begin their union careers. With 2022 coming to a close, News @ 11 spoke with Apprenticeship Coordinator Alton Wilkerson to get his thoughts on the state of the program.
News @ 11: What are some reasons for Local 11 apprentices to be optimistic for the coming year?
AW: The trustees for the apprenticeship program have met with some of the apprentices recently. We want to hear their concerns and hear about some of the problems they think we can fix. One of the big things was the leave of absence process and the turnaround time with that. The trustees have made some changes and I think that will help out a lot. It will help answer a lot of questions like “Can I still go on my trip?” or “I was sick. Was my doctor’s note sufficient?” We heard from the apprentices that that was a big issue and we’ve been able to change that process.
News @ 11: Can you talk about the relationship between the trustees and the newly-formed Apprenticeship Council?
AW: The council is still kind of in its infancy, but they’re having meetings. It’s led by Christopher Rodriguez, and it is their council. We don’t want to oversee it or tell them how things should be. The council should be used as a funnel to the trustees to express their concerns or to express “Hey, this is going right. We like this.” Or “Maybe you guys should look into this for the program.” The council is also a safe room for apprentices to be heard and not feel any judgment or to feel intimidated because there’s an instructor or staff member there. It’s their safe place.
News @ 11: Is the fact that the program is the nation’s largest a major point of pride for the union?
AW: Absolutely. To have the largest electrical apprenticeship program in the country in our backyard is definitely something to be proud of and it’s something I feel that when people hear about us, regardless of what capacity we are in, it’s always “Hey, Local 11 is doing these great things. They are learning things ahead of the curve.” I want our apprentices to take pride in being #1 in the country when it comes to the size of the facility. There have been times when the Electrical Training Alliance (ETA), the organization that oversees our curriculum, will come to us and say, “I know you guys have implemented this. How can we put it into the national arena?”
News @ 11: It must also be gratifying to have such high-profile guests come to tour the ETI. When they visit, what sorts of questions do they have?
AW: Hearing that we’re one of the largest programs in the country in itself is an eye-opener. They also hear that we’re a net zero facility meaning we’re producing more power than we’re consuming. They want to see how that works. And they want to see the large footprint that we have for our training facility. We have over 140,000 square feet. We have more apprentices than some other locals have total members. It’s enticing for them to come see how we are able to manage an apprenticeship program of this size. We hear from a lot of politicians, from leadership within our union, from everybody.
News @ 11: March of 2023 will mark two years since you became the program’s coordinator. What sorts of changes have you seen in the program during that time?
AW: I’ve tried to build the relationship with the apprentices to make sure they’re more comfortable reaching out to me and knowing that they will be heard. I want them to know they can be comfortable reaching out to me, even on the weekends. They might not want to call, but maybe they’ll send me a text message. I’ve been very proud of them for reaching out when they are battling certain issues like mental health issues because that’s a very important topic for me. I would hate for something to happen to one of my apprentices because they didn’t feel like they could reach out to me. I like the fact that they are comfortable enough to reach out to me and I’m able to have an open conversation with them to try to get them to understand how important it is for them to get the help they need to deal with whatever situation they’re dealing with.
News @ 11: So do you get calls at all hours and on weekends?
AW: Absolutely. I’ve had calls at 10 p.m., at Sunday dinner on Saturdays during my son’s football games. My family understands how important this program is to me because I know what it has done for us as a family, and I want to make sure other people experience that same gratitude for what this program can do for you if you complete it.
News @ 11: Any final thoughts?
AW: I want to emphasize that I take pride in being a part of this union, that I understand professionalism and how we are at a higher standard because we’re one of the largest locals in the country. I also want people to think about giving back to the program that has given so much to us. I would hope that once the apprentices finish the program, they would think about becoming an instructor or would want to one day take my place as the coordinator or just want to give back to the organization that has changed so many lives.