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Apprenticeships gain momentum throughout state and country

More than 600 employers across the state pay apprentices who learn specialized skills in the workplace and earn certification through coursework. That is not enough, said ApprenticeshipNC Executive Director Kathryn Castelloes. 

“There’s still a lot more to be done,” said Castelloes, who runs the program under the N.C. Community Colleges system. Castelloes said its annual conference, hosted in Durham last Thursday and Friday with around 200 attendees, is evidence of growing interest around the model which aims to equip a workforce to meet employers’ needs. Representatives from different industries and levels of the education system shared what works in their own communities and exchanged ideas about how to expand the program’s reach.

“I think there is a demand from employers because they’re not getting what they need from employees, even those graduating with four-year degrees,” Castelloes said. “They don’t have the skill-sets that they need to do the job.”

Since 1939, the program has been housed under different departments with different names. For the past year, ApprenticeshipNC has hosted regional summits across the state to spread the word and start new partnerships. Castelloes said the recent conference happened because of requests from employers and educators as they travelled the state.

The apprenticeship model, embedded in Switzerland’s educational system, is gaining popularity across the country as a way to build the talent pools industries need and provide a low-cost career opportunity for post-secondary attainment. In 2015, top government officials from Switzerland and the United States signed a Joint Declaration of Intent on Vocational Education and Training to encourage further collaboration around apprenticeships. 

Simon Marti, who oversees the Office of Science, Technology. and Higher Education at the Swiss Embassy, said there has been heightened interest in the apprenticeship model since the Great Recession. Marti has held his position for two years, and during that time, organizations, governors, and stakeholders have reached out to learn about apprenticeships and vocational education. Last year, his office organized trips to see the model in practice in Switzerland for the governors of Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Washington.

“I would definitely say that the interest has grown during the short time I’ve been here,” he said.

The Trump administration approved a $50 million increase in funding for apprenticeships in March’s omnibus spending bill and an additional $75 million in CTE (career and technical education) programs. Pamela Howze, an advocate for apprenticeships for The National Fund, said there are four other “major bills” with bipartisan support in play seeking apprenticeship funding.

“There’s a lot going on with private funders; there’s a lot going on with public funding,” Howze said. “I only really see this whole momentum growing.”

Apprentices in North Carolina may be as young as 16 and may be hired while still in high school. The classroom instruction is often completed through local community colleges but the specific partnership depends on the employer’s needs. 

“We can have every person in the state wanting to do apprenticeship, but if we don’t have employers willing to offer it, it’s a moot point,” Castelloes said. “So the main focus is to get employers (and ask), ‘What do you need? What is your skills gap? What are your pressure points and how can we work to alleviate those pressure points and alleviate those skills gaps?'”

Crystal Folger-Hawks, a career coach with Surry County Schools and Surry Community College, started an internship program last year which she hopes will become a full apprenticeship program, registered through the state and meeting its standards. She said she identified more than 500 unfilled positions in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) within the county, but local businesses were hesitant to hire apprentices at first. Castelloes said smaller businesses often think apprenticeships will be too complex and difficult to manage or are worried that apprenticeships are tied to unionization.

Folger-Hawks worked with the local community college and K-12 system to create a program from the ground-up, funded by a $300,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation. She said she wanted to prove the value of apprenticeships to the local business community before they were fully on board.

“We were telling the businesses, ‘You don’t have to put in anything,'” Folger-Hawks said. “‘We’ll take care of this all, if you’ll just let them come in and you will train them.’ So the businesses finally said, ‘Okay, we’ll do that.'”

The program started this school year with a cohort of 12 high school students, selected based on aptitude tests and interviews with Folger-Hawks and the business partners. Students were placed in positions in marketing, graphic design, construction, product development, engineering, health, human resources, information technology, and logistics. Many students received soft skills training through the community college before the start of their internships. Nine of the 12 internships provided participants with an hourly wage, and two of the businesses are working to set up registered apprenticeships for the future.

“Once they saw the type of students we were placing with them, they said, ‘We want to pay them because they are being productive,'” Folger-Hawks said. One student was offered a full-time position, others were offered part-time jobs, and other students changed career paths based on their internship experience. She is starting the selection process for next year’s cohort which will have 20 students.

“The parents are so interested in this program,” Folger-Hawks said. “Getting their child a job — I mean, nothing’s wrong with traditional high school jobs, but a job that they’re making a decent wage at, and they’re getting skills, and they’re building their resume. and they’re able to bring in a salary to their family — has been huge for a rural community.”

For Kristey Stewart, an operations coordinator at Atlantic Corporate Contracting, a construction company based in Raleigh and Durham, the appeal from the industry side was obvious when she started in her position two years ago. 

“It was imperative that we get the key players in the same room together and begin to start working together to build the pipeline, so to speak,” Stewart said. 

With eight apprentices working across four companies and taking courses at Durham Technical Community College, Stewart said the program has seen success in the last two years. Stewart would like to see more awareness among businesses, educators, and parents.

“In my industry alone, there are numerous pathways, career pathways, that the students and parents do not know about. And I certainly am an advocate for continuing education no matter how the students get that, whether it be a four-year university or an apprenticeship through certifications.”

Marti likes to emphasize the “permeability” of the Swiss educational system. He said the model cannot be directly copied from one country to another because the overall systems are so different. Around 70 percent of students in Switzerland go into apprenticeships after school ends at ninth grade. Students have the option to go to college after a three to four-year apprenticeship.

“There is no off-ramp without an on-ramp,” Marti said. “Whatever credential you get, there is an on ramp to move on.”

Marti said apprenticeships are a normalized part of the system and students do not have to choose between apprenticeship and higher education.

“You can really move on and around in this system your entire life,” Marti said.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.