Building IAM Futures in Diesel and Automotive

Winter 2023-2024 IAM Journal

The new Local 701 apprenticeship facility in Aurora, Il., opened its doors to its first cohort of 94 automotive and diesel mechanic apprentices on July 23 of this year.

The build-out for the new Aurora facility is mostly funded by employer contributions and government grants. It isn’t quite finished, but the students have started training while the automotive and welding sections of the facility are still being built. In the interim, automotive and welding classes are still being taught at their previous location.

IAM Local 701 apprentices train for one day a week and work a 40-hour week with one of the employers where the IAM has a contract, so they’re able to make money while learning their trade. They also get health insurance and a pension while working at an IAM-represented shop.

“This program is a win-win for everybody,” said Directing Business Representative and Chairman of the Local 701 Training Fund Mark Grasseschi. “It changes the lives of some of our students who may not have the opportunity to attend a for-profit school. They learn a valuable trade, make good wages while attending school, and graduate with no debt and a union job at one of our shops. We are supplying the employers with the highly-qualified technicians that are in high demand.”

Grasseschi and his Local 701 team also work with federal, state, and local legislators for grant opportunities to fund students’ education. Students apply for a state grant through their counties to fund their schooling, and the grant money also goes towards providing each student with a basic tool set, work boots, and PPE.

Recently, Grasseschi with his Local 701 team secured one million dollars in funding from the state of Illinois through state Senator Karina Villa.

“This money allows us to expand and upgrade the facility, bringing the program to the next level of training for students,” said Grasseschi.

In conjunction with the Training Director, Grasseschi works directly with equipment suppliers like Fluke, Hunter, and Milwaukee Tool. The suppliers donate or lend their products, like diagnostic tools and alignment machines, for technicians to learn on. The equipment suppliers understand that when the student learns on a piece of equipment, they are more likely to purchase that same equipment in the field and will request for their employers to purchase shop equipment that they’re already familiar with.

The program recently received a donation of two tractors from UPS for apprentices to work on, and is currently working with Penske and Ryder on making a similar donation soon.

Left: IAM Local 701 Apprenticeship students in an automotive class. Top center: IAM Local 701 Training Director and Automo-tive Instructor Jerry Eckert, IAM Midwest Territory Special Assistant Sam Cicinelli, IAM Local 701 Directing Business Representative and Chairman of the Local 701 Training Fund Mark Grasseschi, IAM Local 701 Diesel Truck Instructor Frank Turi. Top right: Apprentices in class with Instructor Frank Turi. Bottom center: Students working the diesel truck class. Bottom right: Automotive class apprentices work on an engine.

The Local 701 apprenticeship program has long been in development. The program began in 2012, but the idea for it came about in the ‘90s when its founder, Sam Cicinelli, now IAM Midwest Territory Special Assistant to General Vice President Steve Galloway, started work on trying to get buy-in from auto dealers the IAM has contracts with.

“I’ve always felt training was a necessity with the constant technological changes our members contend with in our industry,” said Cicinelli.

At the time, Cicinelli was on the negotiating committee for the Standard Automotive Agreement.

“We fought hard in each contract cycle to get forced training,” said Cicinelli. “I then attempted to get a monetary contribution from employers to create a training fund which will in turn be used to build a facility in every contract I sat in since 1989, but that was met with resistance from the employer association. They were reluctant to contribute without seeing something tangible immediately.”

Local 701 has contracts with approximately 496 shops, including 200 auto dealerships, where the IAM represents technicians who work in the automotive, trucking, forklift, auto/body repair, trailer, marine, heavy equipment, and public transit subsectors.

“It just made me work that much harder to prove the necessity for our existence moving forward and giving the opportunity for less-advantaged individuals out there to learn a trade and provide for their families,” said Cicinelli.

When the dealers wouldn’t budge, Cicinelli turned to Local 701 members to lead the way. They changed Local 701’s bylaws so that a small portion of dues went towards a training program fund.

“The plan was to build the fund, and from the fund build the program. Thereafter, we shamed them into the program,” said Cicinelli.

From there, the apprenticeship program quickly snowballed from training the current membership to finding apprentices in high schools and by word-of-mouth. The program was outgrowing the Carol Stream facility and then started using Olive Harvey College’s grant-funded diesel training center to train diesel mechanics while the new all-inclusive training facility in Aurora was being built.

“I can’t underscore enough the importance of training and providing this opportunity at an extremely low cost. There are the for-profit training programs that teach the basics,” says Cicinelli. “We teach our apprentices tried-and-true techniques based on actual experiences working in the trade. It’s affordable and gives everybody the opportunity to learn a highly skilled profession.”

Travis Thill, 18, said that the apprenticeship has given him much-needed direction in life.

“I knew I didn’t want to go to college, and I didn’t really have any direction for a career path that I wanted,” said Thill. “When the IAM Local 701 Training Director spoke to me about the program, I applied for the grant that day.”

“I’ll be walking out with more money than I came in with,” said Thill. “I just got promoted to semi-skilled. It’s my first dealer job and my first job in the union.”

Lydia Flores, 19, said she was lost about what to do coming out of high school. She didn’t have the funds to go to college and was considering joining the military before being introduced to 701’s training program.

Flores had always been interested in the trade and worked on cars with her dad all of her life, but she didn’t know how to break into the industry until Local 701 presented her with their no-cost training opportunity.

“Coming into this industry as a woman, it can feel like you need to prove something,” said Flores. “But in this program, it’s just always been support. I want the program to become more known to girls like me who don’t have the luxury of being able to afford going to college and want to go to school for something that they love. I hope that more people learn about our program and that it grows.”

Semi-skilled technician Christian Liang is also happy with his choice to follow a career in automotive through Local 701.

“I definitely feel blessed. I’ve been learning so much,” said Liang. “Yesterday, I just put in an engine for the second time and it started right up, whereas the first time I did it I got a couple of codes. I’m progressively learning a lot more a lot quicker.”

Liang raved about how 701’s training instructors take time to teach students, helping them work through diagnosing problems and trying different solutions. Something he says doesn’t happen when trying to learn on the job.

“I’m very thankful to be working at a dealership now, instead of just a random independent shop,” said Liang. “Being trained by some of the best people ever is really nice, and I wish more people would join. The field is in need of people, and the pay is better than it’s ever been before. We need to spread the word even more than we do now.”

The program isn’t just for new hires, though. Classes are available to the current membership’s technicians who want additional training, need to learn new technology used in the shop, or are pursuing a new certification.

Frank Turi (diesel) and Jerry Eckert (automotive) are the current instructors, but the program is growing so quickly that Training Director Jerry Eckert plans on hiring more instructors soon.

Turi was a member in a Local 701 shop before he was hired to be an instructor for the apprenticeship program. Eckert previously taught at UTI (a for-profit school) and the General Motors Training Facility, which he believes do not set up students for the same kind of success that Local 701’s training does.

“We all care about these students and their success, and we’re able to give them a lot more individual attention than the for-profit schools,” said Eckert. “The union representatives in 701 and the instructors are passionate about making sure that we’re investing in our technicians’ futures and their families’ futures, because that is the union’s future.”

The apprenticeship also incorporates union training modules and requires attendance to union meetings. Having apprentices at meetings shows the current membership, who are forgoing part of their dues to fund the program, what their money is going towards: securing a future. The new apprentices will become the next generation of IAM Local 701; they’ll be the ones funding the current members’ pensions after they retire.

“While we have their ear, we want to take advantage of teaching them the importance of working in a union shop and what that means,” says Cicinelli. “We are hopefully planting the seeds to make many of them union organizers and life-long members.”

Cicinelli also says that journeymen who come out of the program become involved in the union and answer the call to IAM initiatives, like moving legislation.

“When you need them to pick up the phone to lobby legislators on their own behalf or the industry’s behalf, they do it, because we’ve invested in them and taught them,” said Cicinelli.

Craig Hughes, a diesel mechanic himself, was appointed as IAM Automotive Coordinator in a revival of the department. Hughes says that Local 701 is known by employers in Chicago for producing top-tier technicians.

“It’s more than a trade, it’s more than a craft. Being a master tech is like the working person’s version of a doctorate,” said Hughes. “The level of expertise and excellence, the level of pride in a specialty that is encompassed by achieving that skill set is impressive and it’s never been in more demand.”

“It’s the size of the vision for the Local 701 facility that is so impressive,” Hughes continued.

Everyone who is a part of Local 701’s training program is excited to see how it continues to grow and provide bright futures for upcoming mechanics who will continue the reputation Local 701 has built.

“I have so much pride in the Local 701 training program for our territory and how it’s building our union in the automotive sector,” said IAM Midwest Territory General Vice President Steve Galloway. “We are creating highly-skilled mechanics and filling high-demand jobs with union activists in an industry that will only continue to grow. This program is a major accomplishment for our union and the communities in Chicago.”

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