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Should Your Distributorship Set Up an Apprenticeship Program? (Part II)

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Should Your Distributorship Set Up an Apprenticeship Program? (Part II)

In the first part of this article series, we discussed why electrical distributors are in the perfect position to help their customers find, train, and retain skilled workers in today’s tight labor market.

 

Former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe may have said it best when he told a congressional panel that it’s time to “make work cool again” for career and technical education and the skilled trades, sharing his belief that a combination of factors have left many young people with a negative image about hands-on, blue-collar work. “You have to make (skilled trades work) aspirational,” he told the panel. “You have to change the image of the opportunity.”

To do his part in that mission, Rowe launched a nonprofit foundation (mikeroweWORKS) to challenge the idea that going to college for four years (and piling up substantial debt) is the only way to achieve career success, and his foundation channels scholarship funds to students pursuing a career in the skilled trades. According to NHBR, the foundation has so far mobilized more than $3 million in education funds connecting students and trade schools.

“The shortage of skilled labor in key professions is an ongoing problem with far-reaching effects on our local and national economies,” NHBR reports. “Reframing the discussion, creating more training opportunities to help workers acquire in-demand skills, and expanding the availability of scholarship programs that support such efforts will be an important part of the solution.”

Skilled Trades Talent Drought

Finding and retaining new talent in a time of skilled trade labor shortage is no easy task, and electrical contractors and construction firms have been hit particularly hard. On one hand, the national construction project pipeline is brimming. On the other, the number of qualified employees that are ready, willing, and able to work in “dirty” jobs—and pass up the opportunity to get into technology, sales, and service careers—has decreased exponentially.

“North America is facing a skilled trades talent drought. In 2016 skilled trades positions were the hardest role for companies to fill for the seventh straight year,” according to Expert Insight. “With nearly 20% of current tradespeople older than 55 and only one new tradesperson entering the workforce for every five who retire, this labor challenge will only worsen over the coming years.”

Knowing this, the developers of a large, mixed-use construction project in South Florida is investing $2.5 million in a scholarship fund to send Miami residents to vocational programs. Working with management consulting firm Garth Solutions, Oleta Partners is working with an area trade college (CBT College) to administer the free construction training program—all with the goal of keeping the pipeline of new, skilled tradespeople as full as possible as it develops SoLe Mia in Miami.

At the end of the 7-month-long program, the 20 participating high school students will graduate with a degree in Building Construction Technology and will have the skills necessary to enter the workforce as building construction technicians or assistants. Students learn from experienced faculty and receive at least 50 percent hands-on training time in the school’s laboratories, according to Yvonne Garth, president and CEO at Garth Solutions in Miramar, Fla.

“The severe shortage of construction workers for field labor drove Oleta to develop this program, which centers around sending local residents to various construction-related vocational training programs,” Garth explains, “so that when the construction work begins on SoLe Mia, those students are ready and armed with the skills and the knowledge that they need to work on the project.”

The program’s core focuses include HVAC, electrical, plumbing, overall building construction, welding, and heavy equipment. Specifically within the electrical program, Garth says many students are graduating high school seniors who don’t necessarily want to attend “traditional” college but are looking for careers in construction. Right now, for example, a group of 20 students is participating in a customized electrical program though CBT College.

“Because these students are young and just getting started, we’re hoping they’ll be more committed to completing the electrical program (i.e., versus a seasoned construction employee that’s looking for a career change),” says Garth, “and taking the next step of entering the electrical field.”

Getting a Program Set Up

Distributors looking to emulate Oleta Partners’ hands-on apprenticeship program should start by finding a reputable trade school or other institution that can administer the education. Doing so can dramatically reduce the “barriers to entry” to starting such a program. Sarah Boisvert, author of The New Collar Workforce: An Insider’s Guide to Making Impactful Change in Manufacturing and Training and founder of Fab Lab Hub, also tells companies to consult with their state labor boards, the National Department of Labor, and/or any area Manufacturing Extension Partnership for the guidelines and/or any available apprenticeship program support.

“The process can be a bit onerous as you try to figure everything out and put the pieces together for your program,” says Boisvert, “and these organizations all offer programs to help you get started, and to help you navigate the path.” The Department of Labor, for example, may require a set number of hours of education and hands-on training (both of which may be replaced by a competency-based “hours worked” requirement), for a certain occupation.

Despite the startup challenges associated with apprenticeship programs, Boisvert says combining them with hands-on project-based learning can help reach employers’ goals of finding “new collar” workers who can solve problems. “Apprenticeships usually result in a full-time job, partially due to the industry partner’s financial investment in the endeavor,” she points out, noting that apprenticeships are particularly valuable in that they allow the student to “try a job and see what it’s really like in day-to-day work.”

Garth tells electrical distributors to put together a structured apprenticeship program, and preferably one that’s aligned with an area trade or vocational school which has a strong electrical program. “That way, you can leverage the school’s certified teachers and instructors,” says Garth, who also advises companies to think beyond the “build it and they will come” mindset when establishing and administering such a program. In other words, don’t just assume that every student who signs up will just magically emerge from the program ready to work for your best electrical contractor-customer.

“Commit to monitoring the students’ progress as they go through the system, knowing that even the pupil who comes in gung-ho and enthusiastic may run into challenges with it,” says Garth, who adds that Oleta Partners tracks its apprentices’ attendance and grades. “It’s not just ‘Good luck and see you at graduation.’ You have to maintain regular dialogue and form relationships with those students throughout the process in order to promote their success.”

 

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Bridget McCrea  is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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