This isn’t your grandpa’s apprenticeship program

Montanans are a hard-working bunch of folks. Year after year, we endure calving season or fall harvest. Week after week, we toil through 12-hour hospital shifts or 10-hour days operating heavy machinery.

We are proud of the work we do — work that betters our communities and puts food on our tables (and on tables around the world, for that matter). It’s in our nature to work hard, but odds are someone else took the time to show us the ropes.

Who taught us our skills? Who instilled in us our sense of work ethic? That answer is unique for each person. But for thousands of Montanans, it goes back to apprenticeships.

Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program

Apprenticeships have been part of our state’s history since every town had its own farrier. And, thanks to the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program, they’re still alive and well today in communities across the state. Run through the Montana Department of Labor and Industry and funded by a combination of state and federal dollars, the program aims to increase the number of trained workers available for hire.

The process is a little more formal than a simple handshake with a just-out-of-high-school kid who sweeps your shop and changes a tire or two (although that approach works, too).

“The Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program requires all of our apprentices to complete 2,000 hours on the job, 144 hours of related instruction, set a wage and include at least one wage progression (a raise) during the apprenticeship, and the awarding of a certificate upon graduation,” said Erin Loranger, the Department of Labor and Industry’s Public Information Officer.

One thing is for sure, this certainly isn’t your grandpa’s apprenticeship program.

These apprenticeships are offered in all sorts of fields, each with its own unique program and requirements. There are jobs you typically think about when you hear “apprentice” — plumbers, electricians, or heavy machinery operators. But there are also apprenticeships in fields ranging from information technology to brewing to health care (the fastest growing program).

Over the past few years, a tight labor market and lack of skilled workers to meet demand has bolstered the need for Montana’s Registered Apprenticeship Program, which has expanded its offerings and ramped up its program. There’s a large group of folks hoping to retire soon (if they can bare the thought of not working). There are tons of folks moving into the state who want jobs. And there are new booming industries — such as tech and healthcare — that need workers. Conditions are ripe for increased job training programs.

In 2017, there were 554 active apprenticeship sponsors throughout Montana, 83 of which were new programs. That’s a big leap from 2012, when there were only 324 active participants. Last year, those businesses sponsored 2,082 apprenticeship participants — 19 percent of whom were women — in 60 different occupations.

What’s the bottom line?

It’s not all roses and daisies. Nothing ever is. For it to work, both the apprentice and the sponsor have to stick it out. Big economic changes, family events, or a mis-matched working relationship are just a few things that can knock the apprenticeship off track — or end it entirely. According to a new report from the Labor Department, just over half of apprentices successfully complete the program.

But anything with this much growth and popularity must be serving a purpose in our communities. And for those who stick it out, it can be a winning experience for both the apprentice and the sponsor.

The apprentice earns money while learning a specific skill that ultimately advances or translates into a career. When they finish the program, not only do they leave with an accredited certificate, they also have no college debt. Often, they’ll find a job making more money than those who didn’t go through the training program. In fact, people who complete an apprenticeship program have an average wage of $63,635 — nearly $20,000 more than Montana’s average salary.

Not only is the program building a skilled workforce, but those higher salaries are also benefit the local economy. While this accredited apprenticeship training is accepted in all 50 states, nearly 87 percent of folks who finish the program find work in Montana. Many apprentices, once trained by a curriculum specifically designed for that business, continue to work for their sponsor.

Over the next few months, Prairie Populist will check-in with folks who know this program inside and out — apprentices who have finished the program, business sponsors that have taken on apprentices, and individuals working in colleges, high schools, and trade schools who keep these programs running.

-Amanda Garant

CALLING ALL APPRENTICES AND SPONSORS! Have you or someone you know gone through the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Send an email to [email protected] and we’ll be in touch.