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Tools of the Trades: How apprenticeships are making a comeback

For the last several years, Utahns who work in the trades—like manufacturing and construction—have been discussing an industry-wide concern that millennials aren’t interested in the careers they have to offer. Because of this, several Utah organizations have beefed up their apprenticeship programs and created other initiatives specifically to entice high school students and young adults to consider careers in the trades.

Hands-on training

About seven years ago, the Utah Mechanical Contractors Association (UMCA) built a more than $6 million, 30,000-square-foot training center in Salt Lake City called the Utah Career Center, which now serves as a hub for apprenticeships in the plumbing, pipefitting, welding and HVAC service trades.

The program, which is jointly administered by UA Local 140 and UMCA, was designed to feel much like a technical college experience for students, says Robert Bergman, executive vice president of the UMCA.

“It’s not like your grandfather’s apprenticeship program,” he says. “Over the years, the high school counselors have tended to look at apprenticeship and training programs as a last resort, but in our case, we provide four distinct options that pay really well, have great benefits and provide a great retirement. The state requires four years of an apprenticeship to become licensed, but we require five years.”

Currently, the Utah Career Center has a little over 300 students training in the four trade programs. “Our growth has been steady,” Bergman says. “Historically, our average is around 200 to 250 students, so we have definitely experienced a growth. We’re making some headway in growing the construction market for our companies. Our facility has plenty of capacity to continue to grow. We’ve currently got 38 companies that participate in this program.”

Students who attend the Utah Career Center must be employed by one of the 38 participating companies. First-year apprentices make an average of $37,000 a year, says Will Nickell, director of training at the Utah Career Center. “Most students when they’re done have no student debt. Every year they get a 10 percent increase. By the time they’re done with the five years of training, they will be making about $68,000 plus benefits, which pushes it up to $85,000.”

Apprentices are in class nine hours a week for 30 weeks a year for the whole five years. That corresponds roughly with community college semesters, says Nickell, and all of the apprentices earn six credit hours per semester through Salt Lake Community College (SLCC). “At the same time, they are working full-time for one of our participating employers,” he adds. “Tuition is set by SLCC and currently that’s about $478 per semester.”

Bergman says the facility provides students with hands-on training, a dedicated computer lab and various other lab spaces that help students develop lifelong skills for a career in the trades. “Our budget on an annual basis is $1.2 million to run the program,” he says. “The facility is really one that you have to see to believe.”

Getting the word out about the Utah Career Center has been focused primarily on high school counselors and job fairs. “We go to about 10 to 12 job fairs per year and what we find is interest from the younger people is not our biggest problem,” Nickell says. “Our biggest problem seems to be the acceptance that this is a viable career for them from their parents or their high school counselors. I tell a lot of parents and counselors that just like I don’t believe college is for everyone, our program isn’t for everyone—but for the right people, it is a great fit.”

Constructing a career

Although the Associated General Contractors of Utah (AGC of Utah) has had apprenticeship programs through the Department of Labor/Office of Apprenticeship since the 1980s, the programs in place now feature a strong emphasis on current industry needs in Utah.

Richard Fullmer, director of apprenticeship and training at AGC of Utah, says the apprenticeships available today include form builder/rough carpenter, heavy equipment operator, construction craft skilled laborer, cement mason/concrete finisher and heavy truck driver. The programs range in length from one to three years until certification, and each program includes on-the-job training as well as related technical instruction. Combined, the programs host anywhere from 85 to 100 students at a time.

“When an apprentice completes the program, they get a certificate of completion from the Department of Labor/Office of Apprenticeship that shows they are a journeyman of their craft and it’s going to be recognized nationally,” Fullmer says. “We’ve partnered with Mountainland Technical College. Our apprentices go to night school for two semesters per year.”

Cost for tuition and books for the AGC of Utah’s programs typically run less than $500 a semester, and many employers pay for or split the cost with their employees who enroll in the programs. “It’s a win-win because the employer gains a more trained employee with better skills, and the employee goes to school for little to nothing,” Fullmer says.

The AGC of Utah’s workforce development committee is tasked with outreach to high schoolers to gain interest in the apprenticeships. “We go up to the high school counselor conference that’s held every summer at Wasatch High School in Heber. Last year and this year there’s been anywhere from 1,000 to 1,100 counselors,” Fullmer says. “We try to get counselors interested and educated in some of the things we offer.”

Additionally, the organization just launched a new initiative that enlists Utah construction companies to adopt a high school in their area, Fullmer says. Companies will offer presentations at those schools and meet with counselors and shop teachers to educate them about careers in their industry.

“We’re trying to get the message out that construction is a viable career where you can make a good living,” says Fullmer.

Raising awareness

Before you can enlist students into an apprenticeship program, they have to be aware of and interested in those careers. That’s why the Utah Manufacturers Association (UMA) has been working to re-introduce manufacturing to high school students and young adults.

“They don’t even know what we make, and because of that they’re not choosing manufacturing as a career,” says Todd Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association (UMA).

This concern caused the UMA to look at the number of college students enrolled in programs that teach manufacturing-related skills. Bingham says when they counted just over a year ago in September 2016, they found that only around 650 students were taking these types of courses at Utah’s applied technology colleges, community colleges and universities.

“We decided to partner with eight post-secondary educational institutions to increase the number of students enrolled in those programs,” Bingham says. “There are 3,600 manufacturing companies in the state, and 650 students were not going to fill those needed jobs. But students who come out of high school aren’t saying, ‘Manufacturing is a career for me.’ Why not? We found most millennials don’t have a negative image of manufacturing. Instead, they have no image. They don’t think about it as a career.”

Through a $250,000 grant provided by the Utah Department of Workforce Services along with financial and in-kind support from Utah manufacturers, more than 400 companies and eight educational institutions spearheaded a campaign that targeted 19- to 27-year-olds along the Wasatch Front primarily through social media. The campaign, titled “Make Manufacturing Your Future” used the hashtag #exploremfg and featured short videos with information on the types of careers people could have in manufacturing.

The two main objectives of the campaign were to educate recent high school graduates and young adults about manufacturing as a viable career path and to increase enrollment in manufacturing training within one year by 150 students. The campaign ended up doing a lot more.

“In that three- to four-month-long campaign, we got close to three quarters of a million 19- to 27-year-olds in Utah who saw the posts and videos,” Bingham says. “Next, we tracked what they did. Did they go to the website? What did they click on? Did they follow our posts to any college websites? Now our current enrollment, as of Sept. 1, 2017, jumped to just about 1,750 students enrolled in manufacturing programs. We had an increase of over 1,000 students just from this one campaign. It’s been wildly successful.”

Because the pilot campaign was so successful, Bingham says now the UMA is looking at ways to scale the campaign. “Our national group is interested in what we’re doing as well, and they’re watching us,” he says. “Scaling the campaign is our big challenge right now, and there are some difficult challenges with that, but we are marching down that path because we know it works.”

Breaking out of the four-year box

Outreach for apprenticeship programs and social media campaigns aside, many organizations agree that young workers still need more understanding on the type of education they need for careers in the trades.

“Traditional college is a great thing, but we also think there’s certainly people out there who are not interested in college,” says AGC’s Fullmer. “Those are the people who will find good opportunities in the trades. They can start out as a rough carpenter and work their way up to general foreman and superintendent. Construction has this stigma that it’s not anything great, but we’re trying to get the word out that it’s a good career and it’s rewarding. You can have a lot of pride and ownership in these careers. And there’s a lot of work available right now and everyone wants good employees.”

Bingham adds that not all high-paying jobs require a four-year college degree. “Most jobs do require some level of post-secondary education, but 70 percent of jobs don’t require a four-year degree,” he says. “In a lot of cases people feel like college is the only pathway they have, so they go for a year and realize that’s not what they wanted to do, and at that point, employers can’t find them. But the average manufacturing job pays $85,000 a year nationally. You can find a great job in a company that will train you, help pay for your education and give you a fabulous wage. It’s time to really start to focus on that and its paying dividends.”