Apprenticeship Programs Are Filling the Workforce Gap

On the Job: Taylor Barfield, Lowndes High School student, with Bryan Bailey, general superintendent with Ace Electric, and Nathan Little, a superintendent with Ace Electric. 

You’re hired! A phrase many businesses aren’t saying often enough in today’s booming economy—but it’s not because there is a lack of jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) estimates there are 7.6 million unfilled jobs, with only 6.5 million people actively looking for work.

With today’s talent shortage in multiple career fields, employers across the country are concerned. According to a survey by IWSI America, 40 percent of U.S. employers are unable to find workers with required technical skills; and 92 percent say the skills shortage is negatively impacting productivity, staff turnover, and employee satisfaction.

The manufacturing industry is a prime example. Research conducted by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute estimates that in the next ten years, manufacturers will need to add 4.6 million jobs, with 2.4 million expected to go unfilled. Currently, the U.S. manufacturing industry has more than 500,000 vacant positions.

With a “grow your own” approach, many executives are filling vacant positions through registered apprenticeship programs. The DOL confirms that U.S. employers have hired more than 583,000 apprentices since January 2017.

Dating back to the Industrial Revolution, apprenticeships were primarily focused on manufacturing; however, today, more than 1,000 career fields utilize the apprenticeship model, especially within high-demand careers.

Administered by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), registered apprenticeships are a tried-and-true process that combines business involvement, structured on-the-job training, related classroom instruction, wage progression for skill obtainment, and nationally-recognized credentials.

A DOL registered apprenticeship must have a sponsor that is responsible for the overall operation of the program. Sponsors can be a single business, a consortium of companies, or a range of workforce representatives, including industry associations, joint labor-management organizations, or post-secondary institutions.

With a mission to prepare a skilled workforce, all 22 Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) institutions are members of the DOL Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium and can serve as sponsors for registered apprenticeship programs.

Future Workforce: Lowndes High School students Andrew Caruana, left, and Chason Tillman 

“Registered apprenticeships have taken a big leap in Georgia,” says Holly Free-Ollard, apprenticeship manager for TCSG’s Office of Workforce Development. “TCSG is working with companies to build a highly-skilled and reliable workforce. There have been many retirements in the workforce along with solid economic growth, and apprenticeships allow employers to grow their incumbent workforce while developing new talent.”

Registered apprenticeships are part of a national model that enables employers to customize training that meets industry standards.

“Having industry-recognized credentials is very important to a trade worker,” says Free-Ollard. “The credential belongs to the employee and helps them advance in their occupation. It also shows that they have not only acquired training within their company, but have also met industry standards.”

TCSG students that graduate as apprentices earn both the industry-recognized credentials, as certified by the DOL, and an academic award of credit (degree, diploma, or technical certificate) from their institution.

“Having industry credentials is a big deal,” says Free-Ollard. “It proves that within their career path, they have mastered the required technical skills for their industry. I would encourage any employer interested in developing an apprenticeship program to contact their local technical college to get started.”

Michael Williams, dean of Academic Affairs with Wiregrass Georgia Technical College, says apprenticeship programs are becoming popular throughout South Georgia.

“At Wiregrass, we work with businesses that are in dire need of hiring workers with specific skills including diesel truck maintenance, welding, and industrial systems,” says Williams.

“There are benchmarks for learning new skills and a set wage progression. Apprenticeships are not just a little work experience and a paycheck, they are building a longtime career.”

Wiregrass Tech currently has nine programs approved for apprenticeship placement: accounting, automotive technology, CNC specialist, computer information systems, diesel truck maintenance, industrial system technology, precision machining and manufacturing, telecommunications, and welding and joining technology.

Holly Free-Ollard

Connecting students with apprenticeship opportunities is a primary focus for Bill Tillman, Wiregrass Tech’s director of Economic Development and Cook Campus.

“Our initial conversations are very positive with local employers,” says Tillman. “We review the required work process, wage progression, and ask them to complete an Employer Acceptance Agreement to participate in the apprenticeship program.”

Once the apprenticeship program is established, the company’s existing employees or new hires are enrolled in the appropriate academic program, then registered through the DOL.

Serving an 11-county region (Atkinson, Ben Hill, Berrien, Brooks, Coffee, Cook, Echols, Irwin, Lanier, Lowndes, and Wilcox), Wiregrass Tech has apprenticeship agreements with 16 companies including ADB Hoist Rings, TransPower, Cass Burch Dealership, Steeda, Coyote Manufacturing, Verlyn, Premium Waters, Ace Technologies, and Ace Electric.

Apprenticeship programs offer Wiregrass Tech and other technical colleges, with an opportunity to strengthen partnerships with local employers and provide workforce solutions.

“This is a new avenue for Wiregrass to connect companies with skilled employees,” says Tillman. “Traditionally, we would train a student, then they graduate and go to work. We are now answering the call earlier and can use the apprenticeship model to get more people on the job and earn a living while continuing their education in the classroom.”

Companies are seeing the positive impact of the apprenticeship programs in recruiting, training and retaining highly skilled workers.

Nichole Shanks

Plugging into Apprenticeships

With offices in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, Ace Electric provides registered apprenticeship programs that utilize curriculum developed by the Independent Electric Contractors (IEC) Association.

Nichole Shanks, workforce development manager for Ace Electric, says electrical companies across the U.S. are facing significant problems in hiring electricians at the journeyman level.

“The national average age of journeymen working today is 45-years-old,” says Shanks. “At Ace Electric, that average is a little higher, so we have to build a generation of journeymen to fill the void that will be created over the next 10 to 15 years.”

With more than 600 employees, Shanks says keeping a steady stream of apprentices is vital to Ace Electric maintaining a productive workforce.

“We have one instructor at our Valdosta division, which means we are limited in the number of employees we can move through our apprenticeship program,” says Shanks. “With a required 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and classroom instruction, it takes four years for an apprentice to reach the journeyman level.”

With the demanding need for more commercial electricians, Wiregrass Tech developed the Commercial Electrical Construction Technology diploma and degree programs.

“We have two apprenticeship programs in place,” says Williams “The idea was that dual enrollment students might find the diploma attractive while existing employees at a company might gravitate to the degree. However, both programs are available to either group of students.”

Working with Ace Electric to develop the new programs, Williams says, “Ace is such an influential company in our service area, and we feel that the curriculum will apply to any similar company in the area. Ace has made it clear that they want their competitors to benefit from the program as well. If we introduce new groups of highly skilled electricians into the region, everyone will benefit.”

Williams explains that Wiregrass Tech developed the curriculum and modeled it from IEC courses, which are used for traditional electrician apprenticeships. Both programs are recognized and certified by the DOL, and students who complete the program are considered a journeyman electrician.

Ace Electric also awarded $25,000 to Wiregrass Tech to build a custom-designed classroom to support instruction for the Commercial Electrical Construction Technology programs.

Williams says the commercial electrical construction program has the potential to recruit young people into a field that they might not have considered.

“It is already filling the employment needs of the Ace program,” he says. “As the program grows, we expect to have other companies begin to hire students to help meet their employment needs as well. It will make a huge impact on the number of highly skilled electricians in the region.”

Customized Training: Drew Vickers, technical and industry area director, left, Michael Williams, dean of Academic Affairs, and Bill Tillman, apprenticeship coordinator in a custom-designed classroom for Wiregrass Tech’s Commercial Electrical Construction Technology program.

Expanding the Pipeline

Recruiting future electricians at the high school level is a critical factor in sustaining the workforce demand. Through Lowndes High School, Ace Electric has made an ongoing commitment to offer work-based learning and job shadowing opportunities and summer internships for high school students interested in pursuing a career in the field of commercial electrical construction.

“We are no longer just competing with other electrical contractors for employees,” says Shanks. “With the number of jobs far exceeding the number of available workers, we are competing with every industry.”

According to Shanks, for every three workers that leave a skilled trade position, only one new employee is hired.

With the fierce employment competition, Shanks says, “Ace Electric’s vision is to be the preferred electrical contractor and employer of choice in the communities and markets we serve. We will only be able to do this if we continue to attract and develop our future workforce.”

This year, nine Lowndes High School students were selected to participate in Ace Electric’s first summer internship program.

“This was our first year to have Lowndes High School students, and we were excited,” says Shanks. “We believe the summer internships are a great way to kick off the new program and partner with Lowndes High School and Wiregrass Tech.”

Jason VanNus, a system coordinator for work-based learning and youth apprenticeship program at Lowndes High School, says the summer internship with Ace Electric served as a vetting process to see if students wanted to pursue a registered apprenticeship in electrical construction.

VanNus was pleased with the summer internship results, as all nine students continue to work at Ace Electric, with six enrolled as registered apprentices, and seven as dual enrollment students through Wiregrass Tech. Including high school apprentices, Ace Electric has 10 registered apprentices enrolled through Wiregrass Tech.

“The student interns, which are now employees, have been a great addition to Ace,” says Shanks. “We hope many of them will continue with us for a long successful career.”

VanNus explains that youth apprenticeships have added another layer of opportunities for high school students to complete work-based learning.

“Gone are the days where a student is taking pathway classes in agriculture and then working in retail,” says VanNus. “There needs to be an alignment with what they are studying and where they are working.”

Work-based Learning: Jason VanNus, system coordinator for work-based learning and apprenticeship programs at Lowndes High School

VanNus has found the local business community to be supportive in giving high school students work-based learning experience.

“Employers are beginning to understand the importance of investing in the students while they are in high school,” says VanNus. “It is our goal that when they graduate, and even if they leave our area, that they are valuable employees in their communities.”

Part of the Career, Technical, Agricultural Education (CTAE), the Lowndes High School’s work-based program has experienced a significant surge in participation with an increase from 51 to 123 students in the past year.

VanNus says his primary goal is to keep students working and obtaining the skills needed to succeed in their careers. “Apprenticeships are a good solution for the students and our community. When a new industry comes to town, I want them to know we have the workforce, starting with Lowndes High School students.”





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