An apprenticeship — and an associate degree: Unique program at IUOE Local 825 graduates first cohort

Operating engineers union combines 30 hours in field with 30 hours in classroom in what is believed to be first-of-its-kind degree program

As he watched each of the 22 members of the initial cohort of apprentices from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 cross the stage at Red Bull Arena with an associate degree from Hudson County Community College in hand, you couldn’t blame Greg Lalevee if he was looking back at what was a decadelong journey to bring a higher education component to the union.

Lalevee, the highly regarded business manager of the union, let his mind wander in the other direction.

“The operating engineer of the future is what we’re obligated to train, nurture and create,” he said. “When you talk about AI and the Internet of Things and all the other things that are out there, there is nothing better than having additional schooling.

“The pace of change in our union, in our industry, in our society, is so great and happening so fast that you need to be prepared in any way you can.”

The graduates, many in their mid-20s, apparently saw this. It’s why they signed up for a two-year program, heavily subsidized through a state grant, that would enable them to match the 30 credit hours they could get for their apprenticeship training with 30 hours of classroom work (much of which was virtual) through HCCC.

Like any degree, it wasn’t easy to achieve.

In addition to the coursework, the group members had to juggle their time working as an apprentice — some of which comes with nontraditional hours.

The bigger lesson: learning this program was no gimme.

“Some of the people joined the program thinking that was an easy path to becoming an operating engineer — and that the school component didn’t really matter,” Lalevee said. “They soon found that wasn’t the case.”

Those who fell behind were told to catch up — even if meant taking makeup courses on their own — or be dropped from the program.

Those who persevered walked away with an Associate in Applied Science in technical studies. The program is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.


Lalevee first got the idea to make IUOE 825 a degree-granting institution years ago. The apprenticeship program contained a lot of classroom learning: Why not have it count toward a degree? he thought.

It led to the union becoming a licensed technical college — a big deal, he said, because it helps articulation agreements.

“Colleges can take a look at what our students learn and offer it a credit value,” he said.

Lalevee quickly learned the paperwork and logistics that would be involved in becoming a degree-granting institution was too much to bear.

He went looking for partners, and found a willing one in Hudson County, which helped to map out the general education requirements that would be needed to get a degree — and worked to ensure there were hybrid courses available to meet the degree requirements. Hudson even assigned an academic adviser to help the students navigate the challenge.

The partnership obviously worked out well — and Lalevee is open to continuing it — but he knows other options may now be available.

For starters, 825’s training facility is in Monroe, meaning Middlesex College is a potential fit. The same could be said for Rutgers University — or at least some classes at Rutgers.

“Rutgers’ School of Labor Relations has 100-level classes in labor history — that’s very germane to the world they’re entering,” Lalevee said. “Can we find a way for our students to take that class, and have it count toward their associate degree?

“Middlesex College has an associate in land surveying. How can we make that work?”

Lalevee said that will be determined with the next cohort, which still is being formed.


Creating the workforce of the future means finding — and enticing — the workforce of the future.

Like every other union (every other profession, really), the operating engineers always is searching for ways to connect to the next generation. Lalevee feels the apprenticeship/associate degree program could be an answer.

While the parents of many of this year’s graduates were overwhelmed that their kids were willing to go back to school and get a post-secondary degree, Lalevee said starting even earlier could be a key. He envisions programs with the state’s vo-tech schools.

“Imagine being able to introduce this idea to kids when they are in high school, and prepare them for the jobs of the future,” he said.

Vo-techs offer another benefit.

“Working with the vo-tech would also help increase our attraction of women and people of color, something we want to do to diversify our union,’ he said.

As Lalevee watched this cohort cross the stage, he heard more than just their names. And he again thought toward the future.

Four students graduated summa cum laude, the highest academic honor. Three graduated magna cum laude and four were cum laude.

“I was taking names,” Lalevee said. “As they make their way through the operating engineering world, I’m going to keep checking back on them.

“They proved they can balance books and a job. They proved they are pretty smart, too. If they perform out on the job sites as journeyworker operating engineers, I may be looking at future leadership.”