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Apprenticeships needed: Local partnerships seek to share knowledge, strengthen economy

Registered apprenticeships feature onsite training with a mentor.

It was Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci who penned the words, “Poor is the pupil that does not surpass his master.” In other words, there’s a lot to learn through apprenticeships.

During National Apprenticeship Week, Nov. 13-19, The Missouri Job Center of St. Charles County held its first Apprenticeship 101 Breakfast Forum. The Nov. 15 event included presentations by representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor, SCI Engineering, the Midwest Cyber Center and more. The intent was to help local employers better understand the benefits of apprenticeships and the hiring of skill-based employees.

“Having [apprentices] come in and give us the opportunity to train them basically from the ground up on what we do, or teach them the SCI Engineering way of doing things, it’s helpful from a client and customer service perspective,” Daryl Muhammad, human resources manager at SCI Engineering and an event panelist, said. “As we’re training them, they are getting trained in the skill sets for the industry, but also in how we want things done with respect to our specific clients.”

SCI Engineering, a consulting firm in St. Charles, was introduced to the apprenticeship program in November 2016. Currently, it has seven individuals in the program.

“When we were introduced to it by the St. Charles County Job Center, it was something of hindsight because we were contemplating trying to implement an apprenticeship program. So, when they introduced it to us about a year ago, it was very timely,” Muhammad said.

Apprenticeships are becoming more common across the country. According to the Labor Department, more than 206,000 individuals nationwide entered the apprenticeship system in 2016, totaling about 505,371 active apprentices in the country and marking a 57,442 increase from 2015. More than 9,800 of those 2016 apprenticeships took place in Missouri.

“We want employers to see the value of apprenticeships,” Vicki Swartzenberg, operator and coordinator of on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs at the Missouri Job Center said. “They all have their own training programs, so it’s really important to let employers know that they can be noted by the Labor Department as having a registered apprenticeship program and let people become certified.”

According to Neil Perry, Missouri director for the Labor Department’s Office of Apprenticeship, the rise in its popularity can be attributed to increased funding and employer involvement. Under former United States Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, $90 million in funds was approved [April 2016] for use by ApprenticeshipUSA to expand non-traditional occupations.

“[Perez] wanted to grow apprentices to about 750,000,” Perry said. “At that time, we had about 300,000. We’d never had close to 700,000 in the system back then, but we have around 600,000 registered apprenticeships in our system now.”

This summer, the St. Charles job center became the first Workforce Development Board in Missouri to be certified as an official sponsor of registered apprenticeship programs. An executive order also was issued by the White House, on June 15, to establish a task force for apprenticeship expansion with the goal of alleviating college debt while facilitating more direct connections to jobs for students.

“We’re hoping to add to the discussion [the fact] that trained workers can earn a lot of money,” Perry said. “Most parents think that, for kids to be successful, they have to go to college. That’s just been the mindset of many people for the last 25 to 30 years. We’re hoping to market the fact that with registered apprenticeships, a degree might be possible without the debt.”

The last dip in apprenticeships took place in 2011 after the economic recession, when about 358,000 apprenticeships were registered in the country.

“Companies were not seeing the need to train because there were more skilled workers that were unemployed at that time,” Scott J. Drachnik, director of St. Charles County’s department of workforce development, said. “The unemployment rate has fallen, so there’s been a renewed emphasis by employers on the need to train folks because there’s a different pool of workers out there now than there was 10 years ago.”

The Labor Department defines an apprenticeship as an arrangement where an individual obtains knowledge and skills pertaining to a specific workplace or trade. The partnership includes progressive wages and an instructional component.

“The nice thing about apprenticeships is the presence of a mentor,” Perry said. “When these mentors retire, all that knowledge and information goes out the door, but when you have that mentor work with an apprentice, that knowledge then gets passed down.”

According to Drachnik, the growth of apprenticeships isn’t limited to the fields of manufacturing, engineering or construction. Currently, more than 1,300 job titles, across a variety of sectors, are part of the Labor Department’s certified apprenticeship program and the program continues to grow locally and nationally.

“When some companies think of apprenticeships, they immediately think of manufacturing or organized labor, but that’s not the case,” Drachnik said. “There are efforts around the region during National Apprenticeship Week, and even before and after that, a lot of people are working to inform the business community and break down some of those stereotypes and barriers.”

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