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On-the-Job Learning: Apprenticeships spread to more occupations

Programs address needs for a qualified workforce

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Mathematical equations scribbled in open notebooks mingled with textbooks covered the desk. On the screen of a calibration machine positioned in the center of it all, yellow and green graph lines depicted calculations that Jimmy Farmer and Adam Carsey attempted to decipher.

At their side was Jason Jacober – whose experience in working that equipment is as extensive as his title: City Utilities of Springfield electronic instrumentation control maintenance supervisor. He’s been an EIC since 2001, and now it’s his mission to train the new workers in his occupation – starting with longtime CU employees Farmer and Carsey, who are the first cohort of EIC apprentices.

During the next four years, they will log class and field hours while earning a degree online through Jacober’s alma mater, Bismarck State College in North Dakota.

“I feel like my value has improved, and I have a path to progress,” Carsey said of how the program has given him confidence in his future.

Jacober said CU decided to instate the EIC apprenticeship as the result of a depleted hiring pool.

“I was trying to hire qualified techs at full pay, and I spent around two years trying,” he said. “We couldn’t fill that position.”

Taking matters into his own hands, the apprenticeship program was born.

Employers need qualified workers, and employees need jobs to cultivate skillsets, said Ozarks Technical Community College Apprenticeship Specialist Sara Coatney. For that reason, she said apprenticeships are an ideal method for workforce development.

“If you break it down into the very bare bones, it’s just taking the on-the-job training component and partnering it with related training instruction,” she said. “Really any career could fit into that model if it were structured correctly.”

Coatney uses her own story as an example. Fresh out of college with a degree in business, she was unsure what direction to go and struggled to find a job that would hire her with no experience. An apprenticeship can help provide that next step of cultivating skills while simultaneously integrating newcomers into the workforce.

“Think of how much more that solidifies your learning,” she said.

An apprenticeship is not to be confused with a paid internship, however, Coatney said. An apprentice is a full-time employee earning a standard wage while being trained in the company and through college coursework.

“They are investing into that apprentice,” she said. “And it’s really beneficial to the student and the company because they have a worker who is very competent, who knows they are investing in them and wants to stay with the company. And then that employee is much more productive.”

At CU, Farmer and Carsey’s pay increases every six months based on a journeyman’s wage, Jacober said. By the time they have completed the apprenticeship, they will have achieved EIC pay.

Coatney said companies with apprentices retain 80 percent of program graduates. Francine Pratt, director of Prosper Springfield, agreed these programs are important to keeping jobs in Springfield. For this reason, Prosper Springfield on March 22 hosted the Diversity Talent Hub Job Fair, connecting prospective employees with employers.

“Companies are just trying to find people with the skills needed for their jobs,” she said, adding one way to address the deficit is training employees in an apprentice role. “They’re learning, and as they’re learning, the pay scale can increase.”

State investment
Gov. Eric Greitens on March 13 added nearly $3.6 million of discretionary federal funding in Missouri Division of Workforce Development to expand the registered apprenticeship program statewide. The existing program was funding through a $1.7 million U.S. Department of Labor grant awarded in 2016.

According to state records, Missouri has about 400 existing registered programs with 13,000 active apprentices at hundreds of companies.

OTC on March 29 announced it received a $186,780 grant from the state, extending its local registered apprenticeship program. It first received a $75,000 grant in January 2017 from the Labor Department’s ApprenticeshipU.S.A. State Expansion Grant program. With Missouri’s Division of Workforce Development funding, the college hired Coatney in her full-time role. The second grant extends her position, and she’s anticipating using the money to expand apprenticeships throughout the Springfield area.

“That’s allowing me to connect with key players in this region in order to develop more programs,” she said.

On the cusp
Now in its 35th year in business, and with annual revenues exceeding $550 million, SRC Holdings Corp. officials are entering into apprenticeships to propel the company to its next phase.

“If we’re going to grow and be a billion-dollar company,” said Scot Scobee, director of human resources for Springfield Remanufacturing Corp., “we’re going to need the people to do that – to cultivate, develop and train those individuals.”

Scobee was exhausted with the “post and pray” process of seeking qualified employees. He says his situation isn’t unique.

“All the employers in the Springfield area, and us, are going to be increasingly challenged to find quality talent,” he said.

Although the company already is involved in workforce development – such as Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Greater Ozarks Centers for Advanced Professional Studies and continuing education for longtime employees – Scobee still noted a gap. Newer employees – especially college age – needed more on-the-job training.

“The apprenticeship program, we feel, completes that multipathway strategy,” Scobee said.

Apprenticeships fit the bill to solve the problem, and SRC got qualified through OTC in January to begin hiring apprentices. Since then, it’s fielded 150 qualified applicants.

To promote the program, Scobee said SRC recently hosted an event for five of the top applicants to tour the facility during work hours and see the plant in action.

“The students were really excited,” he said. “The parents were able to ask lots of questions.”

Scobee said candidate selection is slated to be complete by May 1. Because the program is intended for college students, Scobee said participants work full time over the summer and part time during the semester. In total, the program is 3,000 hours over three years, with an increasing pay scale each 500 hours. At the end, the apprentices will have earned a degree through OTC.

The apprentices will not be required to sign an employment agreement following completion of the program, Scobee said. Jacober with CU said its apprentices also are not required to sign a contract. However, because both Farmer and Carsey are longtime employees of about 10 years, he is not concerned about losing them.

Scobee said he believes company culture will retain graduates.

“We will hit them hard with our culture and open-book management with Great Game of Business,” he said. “We have relatively low turnover rate for manufacturing, and so we believe our culture will have a strong impact on them.”

Increased involvement
Another key player Coatney identified is Nixa-based Masters Plumbing LLC, which she said is a beneficial partnership for OTC since the school doesn’t offer plumbing coursework. She said several other companies are currently in the qualification process, as well.

These are adding to about 30 registered programs in the area, through OTC or otherwise. Companies with programs through OTC are SRC, Masters Plumbing and Tuthill Vacuum & Blower Systems.

“Some of them are union, the majority are electrical, and they’ve been around for a long time,” Coatney said.

In addition to helping employers establish programs, another facet of Coatney’s job is addressing what she says is often a misguided perception of how to utilize apprenticeships.

“They thought that it was just for trade or just union and, in fact, there are over 1,000 apprenticeable occupations with everything you can think of – health care, accounting,” she said. “We’re helping get the word out and then helping people through the process.”

Coatney said she sees more manufacturing companies starting apprenticeships as the demand for a tech-savvy workforce increases.

“These are becoming more skilled positions as far as they are more technological in nature,” she said. “You now have to perform on these machines and you have to know things a little more in depth.”

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