State officials, looking for ways to develop a workforce that can ‘bob, weave, and adjust,’ push to forge apprenticeship network

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development presented its findings from a listening tour about what businesses, education and workers need from apprenticeships.

Tennessee is pushing to create a network of apprenticeships that would train people to evolve with the job market.

Officials say the apprenticeships, which would be led by the private sector in partnership with education institutions and the state, would serve as a ladder to “family-sustaining wages” by teaching skills on the job.

Apprenticeships will be key to training people to “bob, weave and adjust” to changes in jobs, ranging from technology, technical maintenance and manufacturing, as new technologies emerge and higher education costs continue to increase, said Burns Phillips, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development at a summit on May 22.

Tennessee is behind in this effort — neighboring states are investing more heavily in apprenticeships. So the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development went on a fact-finding and listening tour around the state this spring to figure out what technical colleges, businesses and workers want or need from apprenticeships.

The ECD then hosted the Apprenticeship Summit 2018 so people interested in hearing the results or getting involved with the initiative to expand the state’s apprenticeship network could understand the objectives, challenges and goals.

“Right now we don’t have a comprehensive state strategy. That’s where we need to get,” said Ann Thompson, director of workforce development at the ECD.

Grappling with the ‘it’ issue

Officials are cognizant that although the state has a record low unemployment rate and competes, often successfully, with neighboring states for new jobs, there is an urgent need to develop programs that retrain workers to perform jobs of the future.

Workforce development is the “it” issue — and apprenticeships are key, said Bob Rolfe, ECD commissioner.

The new era of manufacturing jobs often means fewer, yet more high quality, positions, said Rolfe.

Apprenticeships are one way to train people people who have the aptitude for the work and fit into the culture once they are on board.

South Carolina has one of the top apprenticeship programs in the country and has all of its community colleges on board — which is a goal for Alabama, said Frank Chestnut, manager of apprenticeship Alabama.

Chestnut talked about the challenges of getting legislative support and building energy from stakeholders — one-third of Alabama’s community colleges are currently involved.

He recommended Tennessee officials find ways to celebrate its wins, even if they seem small, and to be consistent with opportunities for businesses, non-profits and education institutions to get involved.

Apprenticeships require significant investment but yield a trained workforce that fits into the company culture and can position the company to take on more contracts, said Larry Dickens, who runs the apprenticeship program in Portland, Tenn., for North American Stamping Company.

The company spends about $1 million a year on its apprenticeship program, Dickens said, getting choked up as he talked to the summit about the level of support the company’s executives give the program as he talked to the summit.

He told the crowd he’s passionate about the opportunity the apprenticeship brings to both the trainees and the company — he’s been overwhelmed by the executive commitment to the program. The company even built out a training shop so the apprentices would have their own machines to learn on.

“You need to do this but it’s going to cost you,” said Dickens. “But what’s it costing us not to? We might be spending $1 million a year but we’ll be leaving $30 million on the table (in unsigned contracts).”

The company trains a small cohort of men — they are still looking for their first female apprentice — who they expect to move into other parts of the company ranging from sales to engineering and management down the road, he said.

Apprentices make about $18.70 an hour. At the end of the two year program, they score jobs that earn close to $31 an hour, or $64,400 a year.

“When my guys graduate it’s just the start of their career,” Dickens said.

‘Reskilling’ … over and over again

State officials would like to model the future apprenticeship approach after Germany, which weaves it into its middle and high school equivalents.

Lyle Ailshie, deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Education, wants to “empower and equip our school systems” to integrate apprenticeships into curriculum and identify students with capabilities suited for hands-on training as a path alongside the college track.

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It’s critical to reach the “fringe students” who may not realize they have an interest in tech jobs, perhaps because they think it’s all coding (which it’s not) or because they haven’t been exposed to possibilities, said Charlie Apigian, interim director of the Data Science Institute at Middle Tennessee State University.

Critics of apprenticeships argue they don’t prepare people to be lifelong learners and focus too narrowly on a set of skills. Phillips, however, doesn’t agree.

He thinks the programs are going to be a stepping stone into jobs and the middle class with “family-sustaining wages” — but that employers have to constantly be offering and making time for workers to get new skills.

Phillips wants to use the remainder of his term to go across the state to gauge awareness of technology disruption.

Businesses want to develop people who are already working for them to keep continuity and institutional knowledge but he’s realizing they don’t quite know how to train workers for the future — when they may not know what skills will be needed.

But “no one really knows,” he said.

Phillips does know that there needs to be a constant “reskilling” of the workforce.

People in the prime of their career, from their 30s to 50s, are finding that advances in technology and automation mean there’s no longer a straightforward career path.

“This is going to happen more and more going forward. We have to be aware of what’s happening,” said Phillips. “Unfortunately it’s easier to identify what won’t be there than what will.”

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