All eyes on apprenticeship

Equachlor is a 1-year-old industrial chemical manufacturer in Longview. The 65-person company has a dozen workers in its three maintenance divisions, all who came in with varying degrees of experience and educational backgrounds.

To standardize the basic foundation of experience and training within the maintenance department, the company has spent the last three months developing a four-year apprenticeship program for each of the division occupations: industrial maintenance electrician, industrial maintenance mechanic and industrial welder fabricator.

Equachlor is in the final stages of drafting the program, and at least seven workers will begin their apprenticeships within a matter of weeks, said Vice President of Operations David Ravander.

“The primary reason for us was that we got to develop a program where we say ‘This is what it means to be a journeyman,’ ” he said. “In doing that, it allowed us to bring in some of the people with less experience and give them a way to get up to that journeyman status.”

The company isn’t alone in taking note of apprenticeship programs, which are attracting much attention these days – more so than in the past, said Ed Madden, Southwest Washington apprenticeship consultant for the state Department of Labor and Industries.

“The heart and soul and tradition of a registered apprenticeship is that you know best – you know your needs,” he said.

 

Gaining speed

In the last two years, there has been a 62 percent increase in the number of registered apprentices statewide, and recently, Gov. Chris Gregoire called further attention to the issue when she announced the intention to invest $3 million for apprenticeships in aerospace and new technology.

The funds are intended to develop curriculum for such programs and purchase equipment for new apprenticeship programs, with the goal of building a stronger workforce for the state’s aerospace industry and its suppliers.

And increasing apprenticeships is one of the state’s top educational goals, said Rep. Deb Wallace, chair of the House Higher Education Committee who also serves as co-chair of the Workforce Development Committee for the Pacific Northwest Economic Regional Council.

They play a vital role in the state’s focus on aiding career development and job-skills education, she said, and on top of the $3 million aerospace commitment, the state pledged $2.8 million to fund 300 apprenticeships.

“Companies are already having a difficult time hiring skilled workers,” Wallace said. “Apprenticeships are intended to help employers hire skilled workers, and they’re a way for people to actually have quality jobs.”

Keeping a supply of skilled workers is the key advantage to employing apprentices, said Charley Ebel, contract administrator for Vancouver-based Nutter Corp. Nutter is part of the Oregon-Columbia Laborers Joint Apprenticeship Training Council, of which Ebel is chair of the laborers committee.

“With the baby boom generation getting older, there are more people retiring from the construction field than joining,” he said. “It allows us to train unskilled workers to become skilled journeymen so we keep a skilled workforce for the next 15 to 20 years. We train them so we have a skilled workforce to pull from.”

Many apprenticeships to family-wage jobs, Wallace said.

“We’ve seen so much growth in the service sector, which primarily provides low-income jobs, and anything we can do to help employers stay in business and help the people of Washington is a pretty good deal,” she said.

Expanding the use of apprenticeships is also part of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council’s strategic plan, said Project Manager Brandi Stewart-Wood.

“We’re trying to help job seekers become more aware of apprenticeships as an option and help sponsors get better referrals to their programs,” she said. “They’re like any other employers – they want the best-qualified candidates.”

To increase awareness, the SWWDC has instituted a series of tours of area apprenticeship training centers for workforce development professionals.

 

Developing from within

Moving forward, Ravander of Equachlor said the company sees its burgeoning apprenticeship program as a means of developing and improving its workforce from within.

“We’ll bring people in and allow them to move into different specialized maintenance skills and professions through our company rather than hiring outside,” he said.

Several of the maintenance workers currently hold journeyman certificates, and others have various levels of experience and training, so they will complete the program at different times.

The downside?

“It’s more work for us,” Ravander said. “But we see it as a worthwhile trade-off.”

Each quarter, the company must submit progress reports for each apprentice and track their hours.

Most of the classroom training will be through Lower Columbia College in Longview, and be supplemented with training from specialized private vendors.

Upon completion of a program apprentices are credentialed to work in their occupation and can go anywhere in the country to do so, Stewart-Wood said. However, apprentice retention has been an issue in the past.

 

Not only for the trades

Contrary to popular belief, not all apprenticeship programs require a hardhat – a growing number don’t, Madden said.

For public works projects – construction jobs that include public money – building trades employers are legally required to pay their journeyman-status workers a prevailing wage. Apprentices, however, can be paid less, creating an incentive for employers, he said.

But the public sector, including the cities of Vancouver and Ridgefield, Clark County, C-Tran and public schools districts, all have apprenticeship programs.

Educational Service District 112’s Southwest Washington Childcare Consortium has two apprenticeship positions with the possibility of a third. One is an entry-level position for a child care assistant getting credits to teach, and the other is for a teacher to become an administrator.

“What’s really different about our program is that we fit into nontraditional areas of apprenticeship – we’re not the trades and our apprentices are mostly women,” said Jada Rupley, associate superintendent of children, youth and family services.

Setting up a program is regulation and paperwork-heavy, but Rupley said apprenticeships have been a way for the organization to improve the quality of early learning programs. The apprentices complete their coursework at Clark College.

“It’s the best way I know how to take theory and put it into practice and make those classroom courses relevant,” she said. “I see it as a great training tool that we probably underuse in some sectors.”

 

‘THE ORIGINAL FOUR-YEAR DEGREE’

Registered apprenticeship dates back to the 1930s with the advent of the National Apprenticeship Act, and there are two basic components of all state-registered apprenticeship programs — a set number of paid, on-the-job training hours, and at least 144 clock hours of classroom training or related supplemental instruction per year.

To reach nationally recognized journey-level status, apprentices must complete at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job training.

Employers, employee groups or industries sponsor and design, operate and register their own programs based on their industry needs.

Programs are approved by the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council and are registered with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. Some may also be registered with bordering states’ bureaus of labor and industries or with the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We provide the sponsor with a structured method they help develop — we provide the skeleton and help fill it in, but you bring it to life,” said Ed Madden, Southwest Washington apprenticeship consultant for the state Department of Labor and Industries.

If sponsors choose training classes offered at Washington colleges, the state will split the cost of tuition. Who pays the other half is up to the sponsor, Madden said.

And if apprentices are unpaid during the classroom instruction component, L&I will cover their worker’s compensation insurance.

Other than that, apprenticeships are truly industry-sponsored, Madden said.

“I think people are becoming more aware of apprenticeships,” said Brandi Stewart-Wood,

project manager for the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council. “There has been such a push around college and getting a four-year degree, so apprenticeship doesn’t get talked about as much. It is a training tool — some call it the original four-year degree.”

 

Megan Patrick-Vaughn can be reached at mpatrick@vbjusa.com.

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