MERRILLVILLE — From sand pits to Smart Boards, unions are preparing the next generation of skilled laborers with hands-on simulations and state-of-the-art tech.
The grand opening of the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters training center and administrative building in Merrillville marks a milestone for Northwest Indiana’s economic growth.
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, said he sees this as a big step in the right direction for the Region.
“This highlights the trained workforce in Northwest Indiana,” Visclosky said during a grand opening Tuesday. “With the carpenters union and the South Shore Line expansion, I’m convinced we have a unique opportunity to grow economically. The carpenters union is a key to unlock our economic future.”
Located at 1565 E. 70th Court, the 60,000-square-foot training facility offers welding, millwright, rigging, scaffolding, concrete form work certifications and healthcare training.
“It sits close to I-65. The visibility is critical for the community to be aware of who we are and what we do,” IKORCC Midwest District Vice President Dave Tharp said. “It enhances recruitment. The construction industry is very strong in Northwest Indiana. This building is going to stand a lot of years as a testament for what we stand for. We’re not just meeting the needs of the industry, we are leading the needs of the industry.”
Building materials, hands-on simulations, machinery, welding tools and classrooms culminate to create a space that serves multiple trades.
Jake Batz, a carpenter apprentice instructor at the center, said the facility is right on par with industry trends, including the need to learn safety procedures while working in healthcare facilities due to an aging population. Batz said students can build and dismantle an entire cabin on the training floors, another highlight of their hands-on curriculum.
“Whether it's December or July, this gives them the chance to learn the skills they need,” Batz said.
In addition, the space provides diverse terrain to prepare apprentices for challenges, such as a sand pit for lessons in concrete work. While industrial machinery is certainly on hand, tools are expanding to digital platforms as well. Interactive Smart Boards, computer drafting, 3-D model programs, robotic surveying tools and laser tech are integrated into the learning experience.
For Mike Falk, of Falk PLI, an engineering firm with quarters in Portage, Pennsylvania and Alabama, these facilities mean quality training for his work force, and career opportunities for youth in the area.
“College may not be for everyone, but education and training is,” Falk said.
Todd Pancake, IKORCC chief of staff, said the council recently invited local high school students to tour the training facilities before the grand opening.
“We teach trade skills, but also life skills like working with people, the importance of being to work on time and teamwork,” Pancake said.
Joe Coar, vice-president of Tonn and Blank Construction, said there’s been a record number of apprentices in Indiana this year. Coar said the career connection initiative is propelling this trend forward by providing an affordable route to higher education. IKORCC offers apprenticeship programs for carpenters, millwrights and floor coverers in which apprentices can earn an associates degree at no cost to the student.
“The work situation in Northwest Indiana is tremendous,” Coar said. “If the Munster project goes through, we’ll need a lot of training space to make that happen, and that’s not counting all of the other ongoing projects right now.”
Merrillville Town Councilman Shawn Pettit highlighted the long-standing symbiotic relationship between the town council and unions.
“On behalf of the residents of Merrillville, we welcome the carpenters to our town, also known as ‘Union Court,’” Pettit said. “If you drive down Mississippi, you can tell that our town is very pro-union. We have the Electricians to the south, the Teamsters and Plasterers on Mississippi, we have the Pipefitters in the Ameriplex, the Auto Glass Fitters on Mississippi … .”
Mark McGriff, IKORCC executive secretary and treasurer business manager, said the administrative and training center has been an accomplishment in the making.
“It’s amazing seeing people coming together for the wealth of the community and the economy,” McGriff said. “It started on a piece of paper and now it’s a reality.”
For those who have a close connection with Northwest Indiana, like Tharp, it signals a bright future.
“This is my home area, this is where I came from, so I’m especially proud,” Tharp said. “I know our best days are ahead of us.”