Expanding and diversifying. These are both goals of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26. “The most diverse local union in the country” is how Joe Dabbs, the union’s business manager, describes IBEW Local 26.
And one of the union’s paths to diversity and expansion? Through the information technology industry, specifically supporting the build out of new data centers in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region.
Northern Virginia has become a popular location for new data center projects, and Dabbs said IBEW Local 26 is developing the next generation of skilled electricians to support data center projects across the region.
“When these projects are put together, it provides a tremendous amount of work opportunities for membership,” he said, adding, “It’s an industry that continues to grow, and for the future, we don’t see this industry slowing down for quite some time.”
To ensure that there are enough electricians locally to handle the work, the union spends millions of dollars each year on training through its joint apprenticeship program with the National Electrical Contractors Association. The five-year program involves 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and another 800 hours of book and lab work. And it’s all free to the trainees. At the end of the program, apprentices typically land well-paying jobs in the data center industry, Dabbs said.
Virginia data center projects create jobs ‘for years to come’
As the tech industry has continued to locate data center campuses in the area, the union has added upwards of 4,000 members, Dabbs said. He cited the Digital Gateway project that IBEW Local 26 helped secure in Prince William County as a prime example of the continuing growth that will “create jobs for years to come.” The 2,100-acre development, with a projected $30 billion in work, will keep electricians busy for at least the next 15 years, Dabbs said.
Local 26 supplies labor to build the data centers, providing a tremendous amount of work opportunities for its membership. “About half of the data centers are electrical,” Dabbs says, “which sets up a great career path for young people coming out of high school or students that come out of college who are looking for something more challenging, a little more rewarding.”
What’s more, because data centers require maintenance, as well as expansion and modernization over time, these jobs will create additional work down the road.
There’s a general economic gain for the community that comes from these projects too, Dabbs pointed out, because a data center creates a new tax revenue base. “It’s phenomenal when it comes into a county or a state,” he said, adding that “every job in the data center produces about 11 jobs outside of that data center and within that community.”
Seeking diversity in next-gen electrical engineers
A critical focus of IBEW is diversity and bringing a wide range of people into the electrical engineering field.
Dabbs emphasized that electrical engineering offers career paths for both men and women. He also cited the availability of college scholarships. For example, through a partnership with Virginia Tech, IBEW Local 26 can provide a pipeline to jobs with area contractors for students graduating with construction degrees.
“We’re looking for STEM students because a lot of the work we do is very heavy in math, science — just with the technology,” he said.
To encourage women to consider electrical engineering careers, the union works with all four professional women’s sports teams in the region, engages with area school systems and participates in career fairs to spread the word that women are welcome in the industry.
“All we’re really looking for is somebody who has the passion to do the electrical work and show up every day on time with a good attitude,” Dabbs said. “We’ll teach you the rest.”
Electrical engineering is a great career for anyone who’s thinking of getting into the building trades or the electrical industry, Dabbs said, adding that with the technology evolution, there’s never been a better time to enter the industry.
“You can stay busy in this industry and retire after 30 or 40 years, and you’ll have a great life, and be able to raise a great family.”