By Wil Phinney of the Confederated Umatilla Journal
MISSION – They’re kind of a motley crew, a coffee-stained photo of eight men and two women wearing Carhart jackets or half-cropped rough leather tops, heavy gloves, heavy boots, and proud smiles.
They’ve just lined up for a “team photo” out-side the Ironworkers Trailer where inside they are working in excruciating conditions not unlike the conditions they will face if and when they earn their apprentice certificates at a nine-week training through the Tribal Employment Rights Office of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Inside they work in small cubicles, barely big enough to turn around. They are wearing safety glasses under shields but the blasts from acetylene torches still turn sweat to a boil.
“You have to be dedicated to be hot, sweaty and miserable,” said their instructor, Marvin Courville, a member of the Colville-Salish and Kootenai Tribes from Arlee, Mont.
It’s only day three and the excitement is still obvious in the eyes of the trainees.
Courville figures it will be between weeks three and four when the wheat will be separated from the chaff.
“That’s when they realize this is challenging and I won’t shy away about saying it. It’s make or break time. This is work. They have to buckle down. It’s a long race and they have to stick with it, finish and get the certification. If they can get the one-inch unlimited certification they can go out and work in the world.”
The students, which range in age from 19 to 29 years old, optimism is high. Eight of the 10 came off day-labor crews where they learned the meaning of hard work pulling weeds and picking up garbage in 100 degree days.
Four have come from different backgrounds but have similar goals, noting that education – in this case training – is the key to success.
Dion Denny, 23, is giving up two construction jobs (at the Grange apartments) and a Columbia River commercial fishing job to take the training.
“I’m thinking about my future and I hope this pays off in the end,” he said. “It’s tough to give up the financial security. It’s tough but it’s easy. I feel like can do it and I’m confident I can get a job, no doubt about it.”
Antonia Medina, 19, hadn’t had a job until she started work on a day labor crew this summer. About the time it ended she heard about the ironworker training.
She had welded as a freshman – the only girl in the class - at Eisenhower High School in Yakima. On the first day in the trailer she was frustrated “but then a lot started coming back and I liked the training.” She said she’s had a lot of support from Courville and her fellow trainees.
“Marvin will grab your hand and show you how to do something. Even if I do struggle, I can get help from Marvin and others. At Eisenhower I was the only girl and made a metal rose. Now they think I get a chance to help build the new Yellowhawk clinic. When I found that out I was even more excited.”
Medina, an enrolled member of the CTUIR, returned from Yakama to attend Nixyaawii Community School but found herself at the Alternative School in Pendleton and eventually earned her GED at Blue Mountain Community College.
She’s thankful for what the CTUIR has provided for her.
“They helped me with the day labor … pulling weeds. I’d rather be welding than pulling weeds. It’s a lot more fun here,” she said.
Tyson Wilson, 20, recently returned from a dish-washing gig in Sonora, California, but he doesn’t like to go into details.
“I came back and heard from my cousin about this program. I thought this is such a great trade to know so I went full ahead with this,” he said, taking a break from the grinder.
Like Denny and Medina, Wilson is confident he can make the grade.
“I feel like we have time enough to progress. I feel like we’ll all be pretty damn close to certification,” Wilson said. “We’re going to truly find out who is dedicated and who is here to be here.”
James Minthorn, the old man at 29, is coming at this from a slightly different perspective. Even when he earns his certification Minthorn has a couple of other certifications, namely his driver’s license, to obtain before he can start work.
“I worked up to the last day of Round-Up week,” Minthorn said. “Then I started the day after Round-Up. Initially we had to check in every day of Round-Up to secure a spot. A lot signed in but were over qualified.”
Minthorn welded in high school so he could call himself the veteran among greenhorns.
“I had my choice between wood working, home ec and welding,” he said.
A welding certificate may be a way to put himself on a new path.
“As a tribal member, for me, with no license, it’s hard to meet the minimums that call for a license and a high school diploma, but a trade takes you any-where you want to go, really, if you’re certified, obviously.”
Minthorn has the diploma and he’s planning on the certificate. Next up will be the license.
Courville works out of the Local 14 Ironworkers in Spokane. He works in an outreach trailer for seven years and accommodates any tribe that can pay to get the trailer to its reservation. He’s trained at reservations in Washington, Montana, Oklahoma and now Oregon.
“The biggest obstacle is how to get the trailer to and from,” he said. “It’s all mobile. Anything you need for the initial welding and certification is right here.”
Training on the Umatilla Reservation is pushing the envelope by adding sections on CPR, forklift operation and OSHA-10, which is mandated safety training that is required before hiring.
“Typically eight to ten weeks to get certification is a short time,” said Courville. “Now with one less week it’s going to be tougher but that’s still the goal, my goal.”
The program started with the Blackfeet Tribe in Browning, Mont. It was geared toward an expectation of training skilled native members to help build Two Medicine Bridge at East Glacier.
“There was a huge interest in welding. The kids like everything about it,” Courville said.
In the process of teaching tribal members to weld, Ironworker unions are establishing and building on relationships.
“We’re all about putting members to work. That’s what everybody wants is success. That’s the goal of the union and the Tribes,” Courville said.
On the home front, former TERO Manager Robin Bitrick and TERO Dispatch Officer Andrea Rodriguez are looking at the numbers and how training tribal members as welders can help the tribes and those seeking new careers.
“If you have trained people you are guaranteed more jobs with higher rates of pay,” Bitrick said. “These are not entry level jobs. They are higher wages and higher rate of employment on the project.”
Bitrick said the ironworker training was triggered when construction on a new Yellowhawk facility was announced.
Will that mean jobs for the welders being trained?
Not sure, said Rodriguez.
A matter of fact yes, chimed in Bitrick.
“Because when a contractor says we need welders we’re going to be able to say ‘yes, we have 10’.”
Projects within the CTUIR boundary require a 25 percent hiring preference for Native Americans but only one welder was qualified to work on the Nixyaawii Governance Center.
Certified welders, Bitrick said, could work at housing, in public works, in casino maintenance, at Yellowhawk and other places. Not to mention it will look good on a resume.
“It expands all opportunities,” Bit-rick said. “We don’t train to train; we train for jobs.”
Alan Crawford, chairman of the CTUIR General Council, was an advocate for the program. Some $80,000 of tribal dollars was authorized by the Board of Trustees to be spent on the ironworker program.
Crawford said the money had al-ways been in the TERO budget, but had never been earmarked for its intended purpose of training.
“What have we done with it for years? We decided to put the money to work,” he said.
By walking the talk, tribal members now have the opportunity to learn a trade and lift themselves up, Crawford said.
“James (Minthorn) said he doesn’t want to be in day labor for the rest of his life,” Crawford said. “That’s what we want from this program, to help people who want to take that step.”
October 2015 Confederated Umatilla Journal