The apprentice

Ridgefield strengthens its employee base with apprenticeship programs

There are no boardroom showdowns – no "You’re fired!" – in this apprentice program. And while participants shouldn’t expect fifteen minutes of fame and a six-digit salary, two years of on-the-job-training leads to a guaranteed family-wage-paying job with the city of Ridgefield.

Ridgefield recently began two city-employee apprenticeship programs to ensure a qualified workforce for this growing city. The apprentice positions include public utilities maintenance workers in the Public Works Department and administrative assistants at City Hall.

The city’s public works department began exploring the idea of an apprenticeship program in spring 2004. The city developed the program with the help of Teamsters Local 58 and the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. The programs were approved by the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council at their July meeting.

"The city of Ridgefield is growing quickly," said Justin Clary, public works director. "And to meet the needs of maintaining a nice city to live in, we need to grow the public works department. One way to grow it is through an apprenticeship program."

Ridgefield’s sponsored apprenticeship programs require 4,000 hours of on-the-job training, equal to about two years, plus 288 hours of classroom instruction. Once completed, the apprentices become certified and awarded journey-level status by the state. Apprenticeship programs are approved by the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council and the Department of Labor and Industries provides oversight and compliance reviews for the programs.

Ridgefield’s programs were independently designed according to needs determined by the city.

Public works apprentices must meet qualifications set by the departments of health and ecology and receive specific training relating to wastewater treatment, water systems and other maintenance and utilities functions. Classes at Green River Community College and correspondence courses through California State University supplement the field training.

Likewise, the administrative assistant will develop skills through training in general office procedures and duties and city operations. Coursework through the International Institute of Municipal Clerks and Clark College will fulfill educational requirements.

Candidates must be 18-years of age and have a high school diploma or equivalent.

Ridgefield recruited current employees as the first apprentices for each program. Julie Kozhemyakin, a 2005 Heritage High School graduate, was working as an intern in Ridgefield through the Clark County Skills Center Office Applications program. Kay Kammer, director of communications and administration, realized developing the apprentice program was the perfect way to retain Kozhemyakin while providing her with a career opportunity.

"It helps not only the city to achieve its goals, but it helps the apprentice achieve theirs," said Kammer.

Krystal Reed, a 2001 Camas High School graduate, had worked full-time as a public works employee since May 2004 in an informal training capacity. Reed and Kozhemyakin received credit for work hours completed toward completion of their apprenticeships.

Apprentices receive pay based on a percentage of wages paid to fully-qualified workers. They receive 55 percent of "journey wage" pay for the first 1000 hours of training, which increase by 10 percent with each 1000 hours. Upon completion, Ridgefield’s apprentices are scheduled to earn between $36,000 and $38,000 for both positions. Apprentices are also eligible for healthcare and other benefits.

The apprentices are promised full-time positions upon completion of the program. And aside from developing a qualified workforce for the future, immediate financial benefits are realized for Ridgefield. The city saves on reduced wages paid during the time of the apprenticeship and receives a 50 percent tuition waiver for courses taken by apprentices at in-state institutions.

"It seemed liked a good way that the state can assist the city in developing employees for the city," said Clary.

As the city grows, so will its staffing needs, said Clary, and with a large number of senior-level employees, he is looking to train entry-level workers to take over as they retire. Clary expects to maintain the apprenticeship as a perennial program. However, the city’s administrative needs likely do not justify having an apprenticeship at all times, said Kammer.

Overall, apprentice programs are on the rise, said Ed Madden, Southwest Washington apprenticeship coordinator for the Department of Labor and Industries. In 1964, the state had 3,800 apprentices; in 1980, 10,000; and in 2005, more than 13,000. In Washington, there are 609 occupations sponsored by 247 organizations providing apprenticeships.

"More industries and more employers are realizing the benefits of having their own training and tailoring it to meet their needs," said Madden.

The most popular apprenticeships are in the electrical and plumbing trades. Those seeking apprenticeships are attracted by the occupation-specific training and receiving an income versus paying tuition, said Madden. Additionally, an apprenticeship allows workers to know what a job requires right away, which also results in a high cancellation rate among apprentices, said Madden.

"In an apprenticeship, you find out in your first week if you like the job," he said.

Madden expects the number of apprenticeships to continue to increase. But the expansion or access to apprenticeships hinges on how many employers are willing to sponsor apprenticeship programs, said Madden.

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