Saturday, January 23, 2010

Woman Millwright benefits from union training -North Dakota

Union adds training to better partner with industry

By LAUREN DONOVAN Bismarck Tribune | Posted: Sunday, January 17, 2010 2:20 am

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buy this photoMillwright and carpenters apprentices at the Local 1091 training center in Center enjoy being together during a recent open house to celebrate the center’s new addition.

CENTER - Michelle Isaak, of Washburn, tips the scale at 110 pounds and works as hard as any man every day.

She's an apprentice millwright, a trade that keeps the cogs of industry turning.

Millwrights install and maintain machines, motors, conveyors and the like. The work is hard. It's greasy. It requires strength, knowledge of hoists and rigs, steel-toed boots and mechanical smarts.

Isaak, 40, said it doesn't hurt to be small, either. She can wedge herself and her hands into small openings where a motor is squeezed into a tight space.

"This is not for everybody, man or woman. I absolutely love it. I've never been prissy. As a little girl, I was never afraid to be dirty. At the end of the day, I'm just black," Isaak said.

A former U.S. Navy mechanic's mate who married and moved to Washburn, she's now a member of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters Local 1091 based in Center.

She applied to be an apprentice in March 2009 - after earning an associate degree in mechanical maintenance from Bismarck State College - and has been working ever since, primarily at Great River Energy's vast coal drying project that went on line last month.

She's getting invaluable on-the-job training from the millwright journeyman she's partnered with and, with other millwright and carpenter apprentices, more job and safety training at the union's hall outside Center.

The union built the training shop several years ago, with facilities for carpenter training on one side and millwright training on the other, and just opened a large meeting and gathering space.

It signifies a new era in union and industry relations.

James Moore, union executive secretary from St. Paul, Minn., was at the Center training shop for a roast pork lunch to celebrate completion of the new addition.

Moore said the union has set up more than a dozen training centers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

They're the result of a hard look the union took in the mirror back in 1991 and realized it wasn't listening to the industry very well.

"If you were a contractor, wouldn't you want a trained work force? Absolutely," Moore said.

Instead of putting a raw high school graduate out on the job site, the union trains them in - among many aspects of the trade - tool identification, lift training, scaffold building, fall protection, tie offs and forklift operation, he said.

"Now, we've got a better relationship and workers are earning their money. We've got to have accountability, a good attitude and productivity," Moore said.

Rick Skraba of Pick City, a millwright instructor, said the set up means apprentices have fundamental trade and safety training even before they get to the job site.

Union members put 3 percent of their wage into a fund that pays for training.

Right now, 33 millwright and 19 carpenter apprentices are in the local's training program. Skraba said that's a small number compared to the much larger pool of applicants who are ranked in tests and interviews before being selected.

It's competitive because the pay is good and an annual schedule often means long overtime days for several months interspersed with weeks or months off.

He said apprentices start at 65 percent of a journeyman's salary and get a 5 percent increase every six months until their four-year apprenticeship is complete.

"Some of them made (with overtime) $60,000 to $70,000 the first year of their apprenticeship. People can go to school their whole life and not make that. These guys are being paid to learn and it doesn't cost them anything," Skraba said.

Cliff Frohlich, 66, of Mandan, retired four years ago after 20 years as a millwright. He was at the training center for a recent open house and was openly admiring of the new crop of trainees.

"This is good. For the union to be competitive, people need to be trained. These guys (one presumes Isaak - the only woman - doesn't mind being called a guy) are a lot smarter than I was. They get more training," Frohlich said.

His only concern is related to union loyalty. Too often, the really good workers get ‘picked off' for employment at the power plants, he said.

Larry Schwindt, vice president of Local 1091 and millwright foreman, said the apprentices are "taught what they need to know. They're taught how to rig it and fly it up. Millwrights do a lot of hoisting. We've got a lot of good people and they're not afraid to work."

That subzero day recently, while Schwindt was at an open house lunch at Center, other millwrights were at a job site working 200 feet in the air, outside.

"That's tough. The customers at the (power) plants see the quality of people who can come out to a job and don't stand there and ask what they should do. They know," he said.

Trades workers will be in continued demand for power plant construction, maintenance and other work as the old school guys, like Frohlich, retire their boots and tools.

Moore says North Dakota is a "bit of a bright spot" compared to the St. Paul metro local, where 1,300 members are out of work. He predicts the Center training site will double in size before the decade is out.

That means more men and women will have the option to be among those who build America's industry and keep it running.

There's more there than money.

"When you do the work all those hours, you're missing your family. But the millwright brothers, they become your family," Isaak said.

(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-748-5511 or


Lacey Rockwell said...

I have never heard of a millwright! This blog was so informative. I learned so much, and I'm sure there are many woman out there who would make great millwrights!

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