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Participants in the Navajo Gladiator pilot training program celebrate graduating from the five-weeks of hands-on and classroom instruction preparing them for apprenticeships in ironworking. (Photo by Justin McDuffie/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX -- After five weeks of intensive training, 16 men and women from the Navajo Nation graduated toward careers as ironworkers Friday thanks to a partnership between the tribe and a trade union.

"This is a big jump-start for these students," said Dick Zampa, apprenticeship director for the District Council of Iron Workers of the State of California and Vicinity. "These students will start work with more safety and skill training than the average new apprentice does."

The Navajo Gladiator pilot training program was offered through the University of Iron, the union's apprenticeship training center near downtown Phoenix. The hands-on and classroom instruction, held nine hours a day for six days a week, included welding, reinforcing, rigging, first aid and reading blueprints.

The graduates will work as apprentices with union contractors in Arizona and California.

Cheryl Jim, who had worked as a truck driver, will be with Arizona Ironworkers Local 75 in Phoenix.

"I wanted to the program because I love working with tools and was ready for a career change," she said.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly told Jim and other graduates that they will help address the demand for skilled workers to build projects coming to the reservation.

"Navajo people need to be employed," Shelly said. "We need to train Navajos in every area. This is your nation. You need to build it."

Partnering with the union, the Navajo Department of Workforce Development used U.S. Department of Labor training and employment grants for the program.

Roselyn Shirley, department manager, noted that training provided by the ironworkers union includes the work and individual ethics needed to keep a job.

"The bottom line is to get people on their feet and to being self-sufficient so they may get off welfare, they may get off support from other individuals, relatives, and they are able to earn their own paycheck," she said.

Shirley said the tribe and union are planning to have another cohort go through the training next spring.

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