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Competition highlights community colleges’ effort to promote apprenticeships

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When students consider life after high school, they might consider possibilities such as attending college, or entering the workforce. But Charlie Milling of ApprenticeshipNC said he wants to normalize another option for students: apprenticeships.

ApprenticeshipNC is a program under the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) that certifies apprenticeships, which allow those involved to learn a trade not only in a class, but by paid on-the-job training.

At the North Carolina State Fair this week, ApprenticeshipNC helped to highlight the option of apprenticeships with a week-long competition for apprentices of various trades.

“It (the competition) helps the apprentices, I think, understand the value and the scope of an apprenticeship,” said Milling, a regional apprenticeship consultant for the western region of the state.

Milling said N.C. community colleges need to communicate to industries and businesses how integral community colleges can be in workforce development and training the next generation.

The on-the-job training and hands-on learning that apprentices gain adds value to their education, Milling said.

In the 2021 budget, the General Assembly provided $12 million toward expanding internships in the state. Last year, the Department of Labor also gave the community college system a $4 million grant to strengthen ApprenticeshipNC over the next four years.

On Oct. 18, ApprenticeshipNC hosted the 38th Annual Electrical Apprentice Contest, featuring apprentices across the state from around a dozen different companies, Milling said.

Apprentices completed a simulated electrical job, which included conduit bending, wiring, and installation followed by a written test. Participants had the opportunity to win cash prizes.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who has a seat on the State Board of Community Colleges, attended a portion of the competition. He said “skilled builders” will remain essential as the state and its economy grow rapidly, and said he wants apprenticeship opportunities at every community college in the state.

“The state needs to heavily focus on those community colleges and ensure that every community college — all of them— have the opportunity to present these kind of opportunities to our young people,” Robinson said.

Robinson, a Republican running for governor in 2024, said a reason students might not choose to learn trades isn’t because they don’t want to, but because the option isn’t presented in enough venues.

“I think the more we present these opportunities, the more young people will take advantage of them,” Robinson said.

Ray Erickson, an electrical apprentice and an alternate for the competition, said apprenticeships like his help provide workers specializing in vital trades the nation needs to keep running.

“Apprenticeships are important to me because it will sustain the future of our trade and the trades that feed, clothe, light America,” Erickson said.

Electrical apprentices participate in the hands-on portion of the competition on Oct. 18. Laura Browne/EducationNC

Erickson said he was facing tough times due to the pandemic, but met an electrician who recommended the career to him, emphasizing the benefits of the career’s steady pay.

The third-year apprentice said he has the added security of getting pay and benefits while he learns both in the classroom and on the job.

It remains important to get a new generation involved in apprenticeships and trades as older workers continue to retire, Erickson said. New trade workers will help to keep vital industries like construction afloat, he said.

“If you don’t have tradesmen in position to take on from the next generation, then you’re going to eventually retire out all of your highly knowledgeable trades, and then who’s going to do your plumbing? Who’s going to do your electrical? Who’s going to do your HVAC systems?” Erickson said.