State officials pitch apprenticeship program

May 9, 2013

From “State officials pitch apprenticeship program” — What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question asked of every child, and the answers aren’t encouraging for manufacturers.

“Wisconsin is facing a skilled workers gap,” said Jonathan Barry, deputy secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development. “We constantly run into business owners that are having trouble filling skilled positions.”

Barry visited Trane’s Engineering Technology Center in La Crosse on Wednesday to promote the state’s apprenticeship program, a state-school-employer partnership that aims to increase the pool of skilled workers.

“Employers want to hire people who have experience,” Western Technical College President Lee Rasch said, which leaves applicants wondering, “If you don’t have experience, how do you get experience?”

The apprenticeship program allows employers to target promising candidates and offer their own on-the-job training combined with classroom study. Workers get trained while earning wages; the average apprentice made $161,000 during their tenure, which lasts between two and six years.

Here’s how the program works:

The DWD lays out core training and job experience standards for several industries and then customizes the process for each employer. Employees spend about 80 percent of their time on the job and 20 percent in theoretical classroom training, usually provided by the Wisconsin Technical College System.

But sometimes there’s just not interest.

“There’s a mantra that manufacturing is dumb, dirty,” Barry said. “It’s simply not the case. It’s not just bending metal all the time.”

Begun in 1911, the program is nothing new in Wisconsin, but it’s taking on new urgency as more companies lament a skilled worker shortage.

Enrollment dipped by about a third, down to about 10,000, in the past decade, a slide that mirrored general economic trends.

A Georgetown University study found that the skills gap will leave almost a million jobs vacant, most of which already exist and would need refilling after retirements.

A recent La Crosse School District survey cited by Rasch found that only 2 percent of students planned to pursue manufacturing careers.

“Everyone has a dream of going to college,” the district’s Career and Technical Education Coordinator Annette O’Hern said. “And when you have a dream of going to college you don’t think about manufacturing.”

Much of Wednesday’s event focused on finding ways to introduce manufacturing to students in middle school and high school.

“I really believe that’s where it’s at,” Trane’s La Crosse plant manager Brad Tacheny said.

Barry emphasized that the program isn’t trying to squelch four-year colleges but offer a realistic, necessary alternative to the “college paradigm.”

“We need to expose young people to the full range of their choices as early as possible,” he said.

The La Crosse School District is hoping to ramp up that exposure. They plan to introduce an Engineering Academy — also covering manufacturing and architecture — next year. The academy will partner with Trane to provide real-life context and expose kids to manufacturing plants.

The district already offers classes in welding and manufacturing, but they’re not always popular.

“We can’t always get a lot of students interested,” O’Hern said. “We’d like that number to be bigger.”

Parents worry about job security and have encouraged children to pursue white-collar studies and a traditional four-year education.

Karen Morgan, director of the Bureau of Apprentice Standards, called on businesses to take initiative.

“We don’t have enough employers that are actually using the apprenticeship programs to train,” she said.

Barry said schools and state programs shouldn’t be the only ones reaching out to students.

“We in the business community need to be doing some of that,” he said.

The apprenticeship program isn’t just for manufacturing. It offers three trade sectors — construction, industrial/manufacturing, and service, which cover careers from plumbing to cosmetology.

The continuing education helps reinforce that such careers have advancement options, Morgan said.

“It’s only the beginning of their career,” she said. “It’s not a dead end.”



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