The forest of telephone poles planted outside an industrial-looking facility at 16th Street and Circle Avenue may pose a mystery to some Forest Parkers. The simple explanation is that the poles, railroad switch, and small-scale “intersection” are used to train apprentice electricians through Local 9 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“Contractors donate their old poles to us,” explained the Training Center coordinator, Dan Fitzgerald. “We have to change them every two years, because they get chewed up by spikes.”

Trainees learn how to use spikes, leather belts and ropes to scale the utility poles. “They climb at night,” Fitzgerald said, “and throw basketballs to each other to get comfortable with the height.”

Local 9 comprises about 2,000 electrical workers, who strictly do outside work, while their brethren in Local 134 concentrate on inside installations. The big buzz in both locals is ComEd’s upcoming statewide project to build a “Smart Grid.” In Springfield last year, lawmakers passed a bill to allow the utility company to increase its revenue by an average of $3 monthly on residential bills to raise $3.2 billion to fund the project.

“ComEd’s distribution system needs upgrading to limit outages. We’re expecting to start Smart Grid work in the spring,” said Fitzgerald.

“The Smart Grid is huge for us,” Local 9 business representative John Burkard seconded. “It’s going to be a big component of our work for the next 10 years. Work will definitely pick up for our members.”

The economic climate for electrical workers was better back in 1976, when the Middle States Electrical Contractors Association purchased the training facility property at 1547 Circle. “It had no parking lot, garages or poles,” Fitzgerald recalled. “There were apartments upstairs.”

“The building had some ‘mom and pop’ businesses,” Burkhard said. “One was a company that made photographs for tombstones.” The local gradually expanded their program by not renewing leases and converting the shops and apartments into classrooms.

In 2008, the building underwent a major renovation that cost more than a million dollars. “We put on a whole new second floor,” Fitzgerald said, “It has five classrooms and a teacher’s lounge.” There are four additional classrooms and a welding shop on the first floor. Each classroom is customized to teach a particular skill.

Included is a traffic room with three signal boxes and a scale model of an intersection. The telephone and fiber optics room features boxes containing a dizzying tangle of wires. The largest room has a mock transformer that students use to learn electrical service installation. All the classrooms are equipped with state of-the-art audio-visual devices.

Classes are also conducted in the facility’s garages, including hands-on courses in pipe-bending, cable splicing and knot-tying.

“The majority of our students are young men,” Fitzgerald said, “although we have older members coming in for recertification and continuing education. Contractors help direct the curriculum. They require heavy safety training. We offer a 30-hour OSHA class that includes CPR and first aid.”

The faculty is made up of Local 9 journeymen. “They’re all proficient in their fields,” Fitzgerald said, “and they’ve been teaching here a long time.” All have “day jobs” working for contractors like Meade Electric, the CTA, or the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, where Fitzgerald toiled for 32 years. “Our classes are only in the evenings.”

The lineman training program is a three-year course, with classes held from September to May.

“Apprentices have to complete it to become journeymen,” Fitzgerald explained. “We have additional classes to teach new skills and keep members up to date on new methods. We’ve implemented classes to cover all the bases.”

These bases include street lighting and traffic signals, hand signals for crane operators and learning underground residential distribution.

Distribution of power is the main mission of Local 9 members.

“Transmission lines are carried by the big towers,” Burkhard explained. “They lead to substations that knock down the voltage so that power lines can distribute electricity to houses and businesses.”

Burkard has been a Local 9 member for 30 years while working for the CTA. He’s been representing members for the past 14 years, working out of the local’s headquarters in Hillside.

“I bargain with contractors on their behalf,” he said. “I also have the honor of overseeing the apprenticeship and training center.” The apprenticeship program fluctuates in size but they typically have 200 students come through their doors each year.

The Local 9 facility carries on Forest Park’s long tradition of being a friendly home to trade unions. Fitzgerald has been recruiting students to the facility since 2002. The building offers something for every member. It hosts a monthly lunch for retirees.

It also offers young electricians an opportunity to play basketball 20 feet above the ground.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.