Not as an actor mind you—but as a personal narrator. You know, a melodious disembodied authority who says things like “just because both of those foods are leftovers doesn’t mean I should mix them” whenever I’m about to dive headfirst into something that can only end in disaster. That’s the voice I really needed to hear from several years ago when I got the idea that I should construct & wire my own lamp from scratch. So bad was the karma surrounding this idea that I got a speeding ticket on the way to Home Depot for supplies (supplies which it turned out, weren’t what I needed anyway).
Armed with wikihow and an entirely misplaced sense of confidence, I eventually (after numerous additional Home Depot runs) cobbled together an end product that emitted light—kind of. Morgan Freeman could have told me that no number of wikiarticles would prepare a novice for the project I was attempting, and it’s this realization that brings us to today’s topic of the importance of suitable electrical training facilities and the part they play in the trades industry.
Many trade schools provide electrical coursework in their curriculums, but when wiring is a vocation rather than a whim (no offense wikihow) there’s no finer training institution than the JATC. The Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee has dedicated itself to the education and training of electricians for over 70 years, and their facilities offer the most advanced laboratories and equipment available. The combination of cutting edge classrooms and industry-experienced faculty offered by the JATC enables their apprentices to hit the ground running when they reach a jobsite, since every student has already been exposed to the concepts and tools that are a part of every project. It’s more than just teaching apprentices the what, it’s helping them understand the why and the how behind it all.
Just what about this program is so significant may not register for those of us outside of the building & trades—it’s generally expected that formal training should prepare a person for their chosen line of work. But in the field of electrical, the degree of preparation offered by the JATC is not the standard, nor is it mandatory. To perform electrical work in the state of Minnesota a person must have four years of in-field experience, eight hours of classroom learning, and pass an exam. That’s 8 hours total, the length of an average work day, to master the physics of electrical theory and the fundamentals of electrical building code.
“That’s a scary thought.”
~disembodied Morgan Freeman
Yes, it is.
While the “because I said so” method of teaching a person how to wire a building can result in short term productivity, it’s not an effective long term strategy because workers often won’t have enough information or understanding to think on their feet when confronted with a new scenario. Teaching “why” builds independent thinkers and productive team members—which translates into a greater value for employers.
I called up Andy Toft, Training Director of the South Central Minnesota JATC to find out more about the role classroom learning plays in their apprenticeship program. Apprentices take classes in a variety of different areas covering the theory how electricity works, how jobsites function, the reasoning behind certain processes, safety, etc. Classes include DC theory, AC theory, National Electrical Code, Overcurrent Protective Devices, Transformers, Motors, OSHA 10, OSHA 30, NFPA 70E, Electrical Work Safety Practices, Solar, and Leadership. Upon completing the JATC program, apprentices have logged “900 hours of classroom time with us”, Toft informed me. Wow.
And while much of that subject matter may sound dry and technical, Andy cites the ability to logically think through steps in completing a job as the most crucial asset apprentices take away from the JATC apprenticeship program. In other words, a craftsperson needs to grasp the significance behind the task they’re completing at a jobsite. Comprehending the “why” that lives at the heart of a technical skill is the litmus test by which we can determine competence in any profession—and it’s all the more important when that profession involves working with potential hazards like electrical power.
Moreover, pass rates for the journeyworker's exam seem to suggest that it is this extra ingredient of formal education that gives apprentices a leg up when pursuing their license. Over 90% of these apprentices passed the exam in 2017, as opposed to only 42% of all other applicants. Toft believes it is the 900 hours of classroom learning and preparation that makes the difference in exam scores. The classroom paves the way for electricians to become great at their craft, and prepares them for jobs requiring more responsibility down the road.
At the beginning of every school year up until 7th grade, every teacher I had would ask the class if they learned best either by seeing, hearing, or doing. Invariably, more than half of the hands would shoot up after “doing” was offered. While I’m not sure that my 7th grade teacher DID very much with that information, other institutions have formed their educational philosophy around the idea that “doing” has a tremendous impact on connecting and retaining concepts. The JATC employs what’s called “blended learning” by combining hands-on experience with formal instruction. After covering a section of material in traditional class environment, apprentices take what they’ve learned into a laboratory environment and practice their new skills using industry standard equipment.
“We actually take them into a lab, and they will put their hands on a transformer, and they will size it, and they will actually do an authentic installation of a transformer… It’s not just on paper, but they are actually doing it”, says Gordon Mitchell, an instructor at the Minneapolis facility. The JATC center located in St Michael, MN is host to 9 major labs with facilities for studying Pipe Bending, Transformers, Motor Controls, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), Cable Splicing, Applications, Fire Alarms, Building Automation, and Solar Technology.
This hands-on approach not only improves a typical student’s ability to apply book learning, but also tends to reduce mistakes made under the gun. “Make your mistakes here, then when you get to the jobsite you apply what you’ve learned. The contractors are getting a much more well-rounded apprentice at the beginning of it”, says Mike Bambrick, another instructor at the Minneapolis JATC facility. This final component of the blended learning process completes the bridge between classroom theory and vocational technical skills; apprentices work alongside licensed electricians in the field and perform the tasks they studied in the lab in a real world environment.
The preparedness of a single electrician can literally mean the difference in thousands of dollars, in either direction. When it comes to hiring a team of professionals to work through a project, Toft explains that “you gotta have an electrician that has a logical thought process.” An electrician who can prioritize tasks and execute efficiently is the ideal team player. These electricians become an invaluable resource, pointing others who are less sure towards the next step, maintaining the flow of operations.
On the other hand, an ill prepared electrician can be costly. For however good it is to be prepared, it is much worse to be under-prepared. Inundating your team with questions can throw a wrench in the cogs. Or maybe wire cutters in the circuit-panel. Slowing down the operation costs money, credibility, and even safety. Understanding the correct procedures and codes can save a life, and vice versa. That alone warrants mandating safety training in an apprentice’s road to licensure. The JATC makes certain that their apprentices graduate the program with a healthy respect for electricity and a wealth of knowledge in up to date safety procedures.
As our hardware evolves so too must the education that surrounds it. The craftsmen who integrate technology into our infrastructure must be versed in its application. With the advances made in electronics over the last two decades, it takes more than owning some of the right equipment and a wikihow article to carry out the work of a licensed electrician. Once again, I find myself wishing Mr. Freeman would have given me the heads up on this. My disaster of a lamp still sees its occasional use, but I certainly realize my days of playing electrician are behind me. Electricity is dangerous and should be handled by a professional; mind you, a professional that has more than eight hours of formal training.
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