By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
MOUNT STERLING, Ill. -- After a few simple instructions, Rob Fisher took the wheel.
The forward-and-back dance of Fisher's feet and the trowel machine was intended to smooth a concrete pad -- and teach him valuable skills of the laborer trade.
"Try not to stop in one spot. You're going to dig a hole," instructor Troy Taylor said. "Go forward."
The Concrete I class at the Illinois Laborers and Contractors Joint Apprenticeship and Training Program focuses on how to run a jackhammer and demolish concrete, then set forms for new concrete. Concrete II offers skills in curb and gutter work along with flat work, like a garage floor, using the trowel machine.
It's basic knowledge for union laborers who spend most of their time on jobs based on concrete. "We're not really making them concrete finishers," said Taylor, a laborer out of Springfield Local 477. "We're teaching them the basics so when they go out there, they're familiar with everything."
Fisher definitely was not familiar with a trowel machine or anything dealing with concrete.
"I was in route sales. I've been a mechanic," said Fisher, who lives in Humboldt, north of Mattoon, and drove three hours to the center. "I knew absolutely nothing about the construction industry. Everything in here is brand-new to me. It's very valuable."
After deciding to become a laborer, Fisher with Local 159 in Decatur has taken 10 weeks of classes in 10 months to build his skills. He just wrapped up a two-week course with Taylor, one of 21 instructors providing training for apprentice and journeyman laborers at the Mount Sterling site and satellite centers in Stanford, Edwardsville and Marion.
"It's hands-on training instead of sitting in a classroom," said Melvin Taylor, a first year apprentice with Champaign Local 702 in the same class. "This is my seventh class here, and every time I come, I learn something new."
The center in rural Mount Sterling, which opened in 1971 and is one of the largest in the nation, is the lead training facility for the laborers union for the state of Illinois outside of the Chicago area.
"We have 27 locals that we take care of all the way from Rockford down to Marion," said Ron Litherland, center administrator. "We not only take the journeymen and upgrade training for them, but it's also an apprenticeship training program for new members coming in. They stay here. They eat here. Basically they play here of a night. We've got a gymnasium, a weight room and about 350 acres to roam around on."
Journeymen, or laborers with at least four years on the job, who may have done pipe work all their life, might come to the center to learn a new skill like asphalt or block tendering. The three-year apprenticeship program requires five classes a year and 1,000 on-the-job hours.
Few classes are offered in the summer months while laborers are busy on the job, but "starting in January, February and March, we'll be so busy we won't have time for rest," Litherland said.
The Mount Sterling site can house 60 students per week -- and it's free of charge for union members. "The contractors, the signatory contractors in the state of Illinois, pay for all the training," Litherland said.
Apprenticeship Director Michelle Payne said this year through mid-October, 677 classes have trained 6,144 laborers, with about 1,100 trained at the Mount Sterling site. The median age for apprentices is about 30, and about 15 percent are women.
The apprenticeship training prepares men and women to work on today's construction sites. "Laborers used to be just weak mind, strong back, but that's not the case. The craft is a very skilled trade," Payne said.
It's also an appealing career choice for some high school students.
"We know not all high school kids are college-bound or ready to go to college. We think this program is a good steppingstone in between," Payne said. "The program has taken in just over 2,000 applications this year. Of those, we've taken in just over 100 new apprentices throughout the state ... right out of high school or right out of everyday life to give them skills they may need to get a better career."
While training through the center, apprentices also can earn community college credit.
"We get them a certificate, then if they desire, they can use the certificate to get an associate's degree and they become more valuable to the contractor," Payne said.
"I've done construction work before, but I never had in-depth training on how to do it properly," Melvin Taylor said. "What these instructors do is teach you how to do it properly. If you think you can't do it, they know that you can do it. They push you to that full potential."
Ask applicants to the Illinois Laborers and Contractors Joint Apprenticeship Training Program what laborers do, and most people will say they hold the flag at road construction sites.
"We do a lot more than that," said Michelle Payne, apprenticeship director.
Union laborers work with asphalt and concrete, build bridges, remove asbestos and other hazardous materials and handle other tasks.
But flagging is one of the trade's most visible, and dangerous, jobs.
"It's probably the most dangerous job we have," training center administrator Ron Litherland said.
A memorial at the Mount Sterling facility, and a program held every other year, honors people throughout Illinois who went to work in the trade but didn't make it home that evening.
"Safety is our No. 1 priority. Learning the job is No. 2," Litherland said. "One of the most important things is teaching them how to go to work and do the job safely and come back home to your family."
More information about the Illinois Laborers and Contractors Joint Apprenticeship Training Program and the training center in Mount Sterling is available by calling (217) 773-2741 and online at illaborers.org.