Work: IBEW Lights The Way

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If you’re currently working as a non-union electrician in Canada, chances are, the money you are making is less than earth-shattering and there is very little realistic hope that your situation will improve much in years to come.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Project Manager, Jeff Irons, explains, “On non-union jobs, workers aren’t usually paid overtime rates, they don’t get the same benefits. Newcomers tend to get marginalized and exploited.”

IBEW organizer, Les Carbonaro claims, “On average we make double the money of the non-union workers.”

Irons nods. “The ceiling is much higher in the union. We just finished our negotiations. We get a raise this year, next year and the following year.” And union employees get full benefits packages – something that you may never receive as a non-union trades-person. Benefits include eye examinations, eyeglass coverage, prescriptions, dental coverage, massage therapy, chiropractic services and more. So, IBEW Local 353 is launching a groundbreaking pilot project with the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration – a bridging program for internationally trained electricians. They hope to accept 500 foreign trained workers into the program in 2010 and another 500 in 2011.

How To Get Into The Program
You can apply at the IBEW Local 353 offices at 1377 Lawrence Avenue East in Toronto. According to Irons, “Before applying, you have to have a 309a – a construction and maintenance electrician licence in Ontario. (See sidebar) If you are currently working as an electrician in Canada, you should already have your 309a. If all your experience is outside of Canada, you can find pre-exam courses (36-50 hours depending where you take it) that will help you pass the test.”

In addition to that, Irons says, “You need a certain level of English language proficiency, and if your proficiency isn’t good enough, we’ll steer you towards getting help with it.”

How Long Does The Program Take?
“It depends on your skill level,” says Irons. “You write an aptitude test and conduct an interview with us – and we’re going to place you at a level. The 4 levels each take 1200 hours. If you’re at the first level it’s going to take you roughly 3 years to get through all the levels. If you come in with more skills, you’ll start at a higher level.”

“We’ll give you at least one week’s notice before your 2 day safety and orientation. Then we will dispatch you out for work.”

How Does The Program Work?
While you are working, you come in for class-work 1 day a week for just under a year, to work on skills like conduit bending, blueprint reading and installation techniques.

“We train the workers at a very high standard rivaling anyone else in the industry,” says Irons, “and we’ve seen some real talent coming in. In the IBEW Local 353 our Certificate of Qualification (C of Q) exam passing mark was 70 percent, which was above the Provincial standard. Our standard was the benchmark for an Inter-Provincial (Red Seal) C of Q, but has since become the industry and Government standard for the exam. The Red Seal endorsement opens the doors for mobility across the country.

“We want you to succeed, but you have to put forth the effort to succeed – we’re not going to rubber stamp people. People know that coming in – they come to us because they want to be the best and we will assist in any way we can.”

“I personally will be going out to the jobsites, monitoring participants’ progress, talking to the contractors, co-workers, foremen,” he explains. “We’re not just bringing people in and sending them right out to work without regular follow-up. We want to make sure this program succeeds. This is a work-in- progress. If our training is at too-high of a level we’ll immediately be tweaking it – bringing it down. Or if we find through our instructors that it’s too simple, we’ll adjust it upwards, and it’s the same when they go out to work. If it turns out there’s something consistently lacking, we’ll develop a course to adjust that. Nothing is written in stone as far as the program’s concerned.”

Irons adds, “We lobby the government about ratios – one apprentice to three journeyman just for training sake. If you have apprentices off working by themselves, they’re not learning anything. If they don’t have a journeyman near by to correct them or monitor them, how are they going to learn? The same can be said with safety. Construction is a dangerous place. It’s easy to get hurt – especially with electricity.

“A lot of non-union companies don’t do that – they’ll have one electrician and a couple of helpers – not even registered apprentices.”

What Might The Future Hold?
The future looks bright for electricians new to Ontario. And the success of this project could light the way for other locals and other trades across the province.

“We’re projecting a lot of work,” says Irons, “with the Pan Am Games coming up in 2015, with even the scaled back transit plans, Union station’s a big project…there’s still talk of various Co-Gen generating stations. So we’re trying to address the needs.

“This is not just about bringing up your skill set,” Irons concludes. “I like to think we’re changing lives here.”
How Do You Get a 309A Licence?
As a construction maintainance electrician, you must be licensed to work in your trade.

You must provide proof that the number of hours you have spent working in your trade and the skills you have obtained through your experience are equivalent to the experience and skills of someone who has completed an apprenticeship training program. This evidence is typically in the form of a letter or letters from your current and/or previous employer(s), or from a union to which you belong or belonged and whose membership includes workers in your trade. It must:

• be an original document with a date. Copies are not accepted.
• be written in English or French. If it is not in English or French, you must provide a certified translation of the letter, along with the original letter.
• be written on company letterhead or stamped with a company stamp or include a business card and include the company’s name, address and telephone number.
• include the name, job title and contact information of the contact person who is able to verify the information in the letter (if this person is different from the person who signs the letter – see below) specify the position(s) you held that support your application.
• include the start and end dates for each position and the number of hours you worked in each position provide a detailed description of your job duties for each position.
• refer to hands-on experience only (i.e., not include work as a supervisor or foreman) be signed by and indicate the job title of an official company representative who can verify the information in the letter (if different from the contact person).

Any documents not in English or French must be translated by an official translator who has seen the originals. For assistance, call the Association of Interpreters and Translators of Ontario at 1-800-234-5030.

Bring those documents to your nearest Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities apprenticeship office. To find it go to

You may be eligible for a Letter of Permission, or temporary licence, which is valid for 90 days, and allows you to work until you write the exam.

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