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American Indians steel education

On May 14, the 124th class of pre-apprentices finished a 12-week National Ironworkers Training Program for American Indians in Broadview, Ill. The men came from reservations across the country. To date, 2,819 men and women have attended the program and 2,118 have completed it.

Merwin “Tristan” Nez of the Navajo Nation heard about the program from his mother. He likes construction work and has in-laws in the field. He hopes this trade will enable him to see the world. He hopes to work in an Ironworkers Local in Albuquerque, Tuba City or Salt Lake City.

Jay Stafford, a Seneca from Perrysburg, N.Y. is almost 19 and likes “hands-on” work; he has planned for this career since ninth grade. He has a dad, uncles and a couple of cousins in construction.


The 124th class of pre-apprentices finished its steel education May 14. Front row from left, Robert Leoso, Albert Creek, Jordan Goodsky, Craig Wauneka, Ryan Papakee, Nate Nez, Jordan Gurneau, Robert Jacobs, Instructor James Stanley, Donovan Johnson, Kevin Redbird and Director Russ Gschwind. Back row from left, Tristin Nez, Chad Hatathlie, Elijah Bush, Jay Stafford, Lance Joe, Nick Julian, Wade Williams and Robert Stone.

Albert Creek, a Kickapoo from Dale, Okla. is 41. His wife, who belongs to the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, got him the application. He spent 13 years as a tire jockey and wanted a better trade. He is the father of two sons and a daughter and has three grandkids. “This is a good school. They’re willing to help you out.” He’s the only one from the Kickapoo tribe. “I will encourage others in my tribe to consider this program.”

Mitchell Williams “Gizzy” is a Paiute from Ft. Bidwell, Calif. He heard about the program from seeing a flyer in his tribal office and finished it in August 2008 to become the only ironworker from his reservation. He now continues as an apprentice with Chicago Local 63. He likes being up high; he once worked from the 45th story of a building at 600 feet. “It was windy, cold and icy at 20 degrees F.”

Brief History

Ray Robertson, then general organizer for the International Association of Bridge, Structural & Ornamental Iron Workers and vice president of the Chicago District Council of Ironworkers helped negotiate the first contract with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Transportation in 1971. The Ironworkers Union contributed funding and in-kind services. The first pre-apprentice program opened in Antigo, Wis. at a local vocational school.

The program moved to Hammond, Ind. before ending up in Broadview, its current location, in 1976. Apprentices work on the job during the day and attend classes at night in the modern training center. The Native American pre-apprentices train at the facility during the day.

Joseph J. Hunt, general president of the International Association, has for a number of years signed a contract with the Interior, Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development to keep the program operating with high standards.

Eric Dean, general vice president of the association and president of the Chicago and Vicinity District Council oversees the pre-apprentice program. Dean once served as an instructor in the Native American program. The current director, Russ Gschwind, Local No. 63, coordinates the training in Chicago.

Department of Interior’s Role

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The Interior, Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development currently administers the program. Lynn Forcia, division chief, characterized the program, now in its 37th year, as one of the most successful training programs for Native Americans. She said that upon completion, there is almost 100 percent placement of the pre-apprentices where the candidates continue their training as apprentices until they attain the status of journeymen. Because the program is a federally funded affirmative action, the Native Americans have direct access to apprenticeship programs around the country.

The Pre-Apprentice Program

Apprentices undergo a 12-week training program taught by Gschwind and James Stanley, member of the Lac du Flambeau Tribe. Both men acquired their knowledge through years of union ironwork. Stanley went through the Native American Pre-Apprentice Program.

Training consists of hands-on work in the four areas of ironwork: structural, reinforcing, ornamental, welding and rigging. Throughout the training, the instructors emphasize safety and understanding of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. Equally important skills include learning to read blueprints, utilizing different types of welding machines and technical math. The students also learn to tie different types of knots and how to use the tools of the trade.

In structural training, students practice bolting up a beam joint and connecting steel members using a spud wrench to align bolt holes. As part of the reinforcing training, students carry reinforcing steel (re-bar) while other students lay out and tie re-bar for a slab. They also practice setting and tying reinforcing steel for a wall section, a steel column or for a floor slab.

The Application Process

Anyone interested in the program should contact their tribal office or agency. Candidates must be at least 20 years old, possess a high school diploma or GED, be drug and alcohol free, and provide a birth certificate and certificate of Indian blood. A BIA stipend of $205 per week is provided to cover rent and other expenses. There are four sessions a year.

After the Apprentice Program

Before the apprentices graduate they fill out a form listing five locations they would like to be placed; Gschwind then contacts the business agent in the designated area. Once placed, program graduates continue a three or four year apprenticeship until they reach the journeyman level.

Current Legislation

On July 7 the house passed legislation introduced by Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., to authorize the secretary of the Interior to provide an annual grant to facilitate an iron working training program for Native Americans. It will ensure that the pre-apprentice program continues to meet the needs of Native Americans in a trade that provides a good living and benefits.

Lynch worked as a structural ironworker for about 20 years alongside many Native Americans from various tribes including the Mi’kmaq and Mashpee in the east to the Navajo and Apache in the west. “As a young ironworker apprentice, I learned many of the skills of my trade directly from Native American journeymen. They are highly skilled union trades people. I consider them my brothers and sisters. There is a long-standing relationship between Native Americans and the ironworkers and I am proud to introduce legislation that will give many Native Americans an opportunity to pursue a career in this trade.”

Unemployment statistics for Natives continue to be dire. According to the Interior, BIA, Office of Tribal Services report: “American Indian Population and Labor Force Report,” Washington, 2003, the average unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent.