Safe, plentiful and affordable drinking water, environmentally sound wastewater treatment, and the people who maintain the systems are some of Idaho’s most precious resources and something many people take for granted.
“We are encouraging our 120 members to plan for the future,” said Kelsie Cole, apprenticeship coordinator for the Idaho Rural Water Association. “More than half the professionals who oversee or operate Idaho’s drinking water and wastewater facilities are within 10 years or less of retirement. One-third are more than 55 years old. Another 30 percent are over age 45.”
Cole’s job is to meet the demand for future operators by pairing quality job candidates with a new statewide apprenticeship program involving 120 Idaho cities and communities that operate drinking water and wastewater systems throughout the state.
The association is using a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to recruit job candidates interested in a career managing Idaho’s drinking water or wastewater systems. What they need is more Idaho cities and communities willing to step up and offer the on-the-job training component of the apprenticeship program.
Six Idaho communities have stepped up so far — the city of Buhl hired two apprentices, and the cities of Carey, Preston, New Plymouth and Grand View each hired one.
The Idaho Rural Water Association wants to sign up a few more communities to participate and hopes to place an additional 35 people in registered apprenticeships.
“Some of our cities say they don’t know where to find people,” Cole said. “We can help them find apprenticeship candidates. People from all walks of life have expressed interest. What we need are more Idaho communities willing to step up and offer the hands-on training and work experience.”
The association’s apprenticeship program includes two years of training for job candidates through paid positions, typically offering a wage of $12 to $20 per hour, depending on location.
Buhl Water Department manager A.J. Gray seized the opportunity to hire apprentices for his community. He also oversees the water systems in Castleford, Hollister and Rogerson and has two quality people on the job.
“They’re both great kids,” Gray said of his apprentices. “When I saw the apprenticeship program come up, I jumped in quickly. It is a great way for kids to get a foot in the door for a promising career. The experience they gain on the job is so valuable — it’s priceless.”
The College of Southern Idaho — a project partner — offers certificate programs in Water Resource Management. The curriculum includes the classroom training necessary for certification in operating wastewater and drinking water systems, Gray said. In remote locations, where a community college is not nearby, apprentices complete the classroom training online.
CSI’s location in nearby Twin Falls works well for the city of Buhl’s apprentices. The city pays the apprentices to work full time and for the time they spend in the CSI classroom.
“CSI’s water resource management program produced 20 graduates last May, and all 20 found a job right out of school,” Gray said.
Garrett Williams, 20, signed up for Buhl’s water apprenticeship opportunity last year. The city of Buhl pays Williams to learn on the job. Once he completes the program, Williams will receive a Level 2 certification in two years instead of three.
“Yeah, it’s an excellent way to get into this field,” William said. “I like being able to go to CSI and not worry about how I’m going to pay for it.”
Once an apprentice completes an apprenticeship, many host companies hire them full time. Nationally, apprenticeship sponsors hire 87 percent of the people who participate in their training programs.
According to John Russ, state apprenticeship coordinator at the Idaho Department of Labor, the number of registered Idaho apprenticeships has doubled in the last two years. Today, these registered apprenticeship programs produce competent, job-ready workers with detailed knowledge, specific skill sets and job proficiency.
Drinking and wastewater systems are complex to manage, Cole pointed out, and they require a great deal of experience and expertise to maintain 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Communities that run drinking water and wastewater systems need to plan ahead to ensure they can train qualified people to keep their systems running.
“It takes years of on-the-job experience and education to obtain the skills, knowledge and licensure to properly operate a drinking water or wastewater utility,” Cole said. “New advancements in water treatment and supply technology increase the skills and training necessary for protecting public health and the environment. A combination of on-the-job training and classroom education makes the registered apprenticeship program an excellent fit for our industry.”
According to Russ, the Association’s apprenticeship program is a great opportunity for job seekers interested in a career protecting Idaho’s environment and water. Apprenticeships can lead to a long-term job in an industry that generally pays well and has a history of employees who work there for many years or even decades.
“Sponsored apprenticeships are good for rural Idaho,” Russ said. “They allow Idahoans to work in scenic mountain locations where good-paying jobs are not always easy to find.”
“It’s a gateway to a great career,” Cole said.
At a minimum, Cole said applicants need a high school degree or equivalent to participate in the association’s program, which includes 288 hours of classroom instruction and 4,000 hours of on-the-job training to become a certified journey-level operations specialist.
Successful candidates are responsible for finding their own housing. Those with military experience can use the GI bill to help with housing costs.
By Laurie Welch (firstname.lastname@example.org) March 7, 2019
BURLEY — Companies across the Magic Valley and the state are hoping to find some relief from labor shortages by expanding apprenticeship programs.
In the Magic Valley, unemployment rates have remained under 3 percent for nearly two years, incentivizing some companies to recruit potential employees by offering apprenticeships.
The practice of learning a trade at a business owner’s knee waned during times when jobs were scarce since businesses had their pick of qualified employees. Now, workers have a plethora of jobs to choose from, forcing employers to lean toward on-the-job training to help fill open positions.
Mini-Cassia’s Student to Registered Apprentice Program (STRAP) is one of just 10 programs like it in Idaho, and the only one of its kind in the Magic Valley. But as it nears the end of its first two-year term, other apprenticeship opportunities for adults are emerging across the state.
The high school program launched in November 2017. Participating companies including Fabri-Kal, McCain Foods and High Desert Milk, along with the Idaho Department of Labor. School districts in Minidoka County and Cassia County developed its curriculum.
For 18-year-old Jaime Alamillo Jr., who graduated from Minico High School in May, the initiative led to a full-time job at High Desert Milk in Burley.
Alamillo is in the second year of his apprenticeship, and after an initial internship last summer at High Desert Milk, the company hired him on as a permanent employee floating across different departments as needed.
“When I was a junior in high school, I wanted to be an equine veterinarian,” Alamillo said.
Much to his dismay, his interest in the profession evaporated, leaving him confused about what career would suit him.
“When they first introduced the apprenticeship program, it really caught my attention,” Alamillo said. “I thought I could get paid quite a bit and still go to college part-time. It will really help me to pay for tuition.”
He plans to continue living at home while working and attending college as he ponders his future.
“There is a little pressure on me to keep up because I’m the youngest full-time employee there,” he said. “But it’s definitely been worth it.”
Alamillo’s father — Jaime Alamillo ─ owns a concrete and construction company. He is pleased his son was given the opportunity.
“I think it’s good for him,” Alamillo said.
He was surprised High Desert Milk hired his son as a full-time employee before he finished the second year of the class.
Alamillo’s father is a hard worker; he wants his son to put forth the effort to succeed in whatever career he chooses.
“I really hope he continues to do a good job for them,” he said.
Apprentice trades on the rise
Apprenticeships have been used for centuries as a way for families to pass trades and skills on from generation to generation. In 1937, Congress passed the National Apprenticeship Law, or Fitzgerald Act, that regulates on-the-job training programs, but the concept is not new, said John Russ, area manager for the Workforce Field Division with the Idaho Department of Labor.
“Apprenticeships are really nothing more than an old idea being re-discovered for a new economy,” he said.
Most people associate apprentice trades with the electrician profession or carpentry, he said.
“They don’t think of a medical assistant, nurse or computer programmer as apprentice trades, but they are,” he said.
More than 1,000 registered apprentice trades exist nationally. In Idaho, technical apprenticeship opportunities such as being a medical assistant are more common in the Treasure Valley, according to an Idaho Department of Labor’s chart listing apprenticeship jobs throughout the state. Many haven’t trickled into the Magic Valley yet.
Overall, much of the apprentice growth in the state is occurring in the more technical fields like programming and web development, Russ said.
Technology trades, health care, energy and advanced manufacturing are the top areas of focus for the state, mainly because they are high demand occupations, he said.
In November 2016, there were 100 Idaho companies participating in registered apprentice programs. By the end of December, that number had grown to 265.
The increase means more companies are willing to give apprenticeship programs a try, Russ said.
A company that wants to participate in the program starts by contacting the Idaho Department of Labor to initiate the process. The department provides the service for free.
Companies hiring students
Although 15 students signed up the first year of the STRAP program, the number of pupils still attending the class by the second year dwindled to five, instructor J Wing said, who previously taught apprenticeship programs at the College of Southern Idaho.
This year, 14 students enrolled the first year of the two-year program, and one student recently dropped out.
Students are held to strict attendance policies and they demonstrate a commitment to the program by attending the early class and then traveling back to their high school before the morning bell, Wing said.
The program requires 150 hours of class time in total and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training at one of the companies.
“Our students are here by choice and it’s run like an adult class,” Wing said. At the end of the first year, enrollees prepare a résumé to interview for a summer job.
Class time is focused heavily on safety, along with soft job skills, such as punctuality, communication and a good work ethic, key characteristics for good employees, Wing said.
“They learn things like making sure they have a lunch with them, or snacks and something to drink to stay hydrated, how to be on time, and to call in if they will be absent,” he said.
Wages for the students during the on-the-job training vary, but start at $10 to $15 per hour.
After the students complete the class and on-the-job training hours, they receive a federal machine operator’s certification.
The certification is recognized by the industry nationwide, allowing apprentices to apply for jobs across the country — their training and hours completed are acceptable and transferable to other states.
“These students come out of the classroom more highly trained than anyone the companies would hire off the streets,” Wing said. “And they have already demonstrated a commitment to the job.”
Once the students step into the plant, they are assigned mentors who continue to train them.
The businesses are given waivers through the registered program that authorize them to allow 16-year-olds to work in potentially hazardous areas.
Apprenticeship programs for high school students are currently “uncommon” in the state, said Russ, who oversees the registered apprenticeship programs across the state. “But we are trying to change that.”
Other states across the nation have been successful, he said, and the program is gaining momentum.
“Before schools didn’t know how to use it, and businesses were afraid of bringing in 16-year-olds, Russ said.
The increased interest could indicate a significant trend in the state.
Idaho Department of Labor Workforce Consultant Chet Jeppesen said conversations about new high school and adult apprenticeship programs occur daily across Magic Valley.
For example, a high school industrial maintenance apprenticeship class is under development at Minico High School.
Other programs in the works in the Magic Valley include a wastewater treatment program and mill operator’s program. The department is also working with the College of Southern Idaho to develop a welding program, Jeppesen said.
There is so much interest in the student machine operator class that it could become a challenge to find companies willing to place all of the students in the future.
Cassia Regional Technical Center Director Curtis Richins represents Cassia County School District in the partnership. “The program is funded through an Idaho Department of Labor grant and sponsorships by participating companies, along with the two school districts,” he said. The $248,000 grant for the program expires in November, but there is an opportunity to apply for a 12-month extension, he said.
The program committee will need to seek other funding to keep the program going afterward.
“We are really encouraging other businesses to step up and help build our workforce,” Jeppesen said.
Students on the job
Minico High School’s Jebidiah Breeding, 19, a second-year machine operator apprentice student, immediately knew he wanted to participate when he heard about the class.
“It was a chance to get started after high school and have more options,” Breeding said.
He was hired over the summer at High Desert Milk for $12.50 per hour with pay raises at predetermined benchmarks.
Breeding said his first day on the job was demanding. “But I just tried to work as hard and fast as everyone else.”
He began in the sanitation department, moved into powdered packaging and found he enjoyed driving a forklift.
He hasn’t decided yet if he wants to continue his education or take a full-time job at a plant.
“I know I do well at plants and it is good money,” Breeding said. “When I’m on a Hyster (a brand of forklift), I’m a happy guy for the full 12 hours. I could see myself doing that until retirement.”
Declo student Luke Delavoye, 17, was hired part-time by High Desert Milk after last summer’s apprenticeship.
“It’s been worth the time I’ve put into it,” he said.
Delavoye plans to work this summer at the company and then go on a mission for his church. Later, he wants to attend college to study architectural engineering.
Traver Larson, 18, and Caden Crider, 17— both second-year students in the program from Declo — also have college plans after graduation.
Both were hired at McCain, which produces and packages frozen french fries and hash browns, during their summer internship. By the end of the summer, they topped out at over $16 per hour in pay.
In Idaho, according to the Idaho Department of Labor website, a person making $16 per hour — or $33,280 per year — makes more than people with starting wages in several professions, including the following: architectural and civil drafters who earn $30,740; web developers at $27,840; child, family and school social workers, at $25,490; and entry-level elementary school teachers, who bring home $30,328.
Larson will attend Idaho State University’s nursing program and return home each summer to work for the company and help pay for college.
Crider wants to go on a church mission and then go to college for automotive engineering.
One of the best benefits of the job, Crider said, is having a full-time job with the company later on if he ever needs it.
Entering the employee pool with a company at such a young age also means plenty of time to climb the corporate ladder, if he so chooses.
Larson also said it is comforting to know he could return to the plant if other career paths don’t pan out.
“I wouldn’t mind working there for a couple of years, or even for a lifetime,” he said.
Larson and Crider both ran product lines during the summer for the company.
Crider expected much of his work to be at a computer. Instead, both he and Larson became line operators, which meant running up and down the lines to ensure a smooth production process during their 12-hour shifts.
Larson was surprised, he said, when people treated him just like any other employee and not “a high school kid.”
During the first couple of days, he noticed an employee forget to put the code on a line of product, which could have resulted in a critical mistake.
“It scared me, and I realized if I didn’t do something right it could cost the company thousands of dollars,” he said. This was a pivotal learning experience for him.
But he also felt a sense of pride doing a good job for the company.
Mentored by others
Karla Robinson, controller at High Desert Milk, said the company is pleased with how the program is working out.
“It’s been a learning experience for us as well,” she said.
Having teens on the work floor means extra vigilance on the part of the workers, including an investment in time and energy when the milk plant assigns employees as mentors.
“Our company will definitely continue on with it because we have put so much time and energy into it already,” Robinson said. “It takes a lot of work on our part because we have to have a mentor with them all the time because of their age.”
It’s worth the investment though, she said, not only because the company needs to keep jobs filled, but also because the company is dedicated to supporting continuing education, which is a component of the apprenticeship program.
Part of this is related to employee attrition. “We want to keep the young people who want to stay in the area here, instead of seeing them seek jobs elsewhere,” she said. “We’ve found that when we bring people in from other areas, they often want to move back home to be closer to their family.”
It also gives the students a chance to learn about other good viable opportunities available within the company, she said.
High Desert Milk makes schedule accommodations for students enrolled in college classes, which is encouraged.
“We try to stay in touch with them to make sure they will be successful and not get discouraged,” she said. “It’s been a good experience for us to watch them grow,” Robinson said.
Company officials are impressed by apprenticeship participants who attend classes at 7 a.m. all year, especially since students can be cut from the program after just three absences.
“Those are the kind of employees we need here,” she said.
Adult apprenticeship ─ a way to shift careers or move up
Somewhere along the line, people formed a general consensus that in order to succeed in the workplace, getting a degree had to come first.
But 90 percent of top officials in construction companies who participated in a survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America began their careers as apprentices, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
College, Russ said, is not for everyone, and apprenticeship programs have a component of continuing education built into them.
Often, a divide occurs when new graduates discover they can’t land jobs in their field, he said.
“We have people spending thousands of dollars on college degrees and still not finding jobs,” he said.
One young woman Russ knows spent four years earning a public health degree, but could not access a job market for her skills after graduation.
The problem occurs when academic settings do not mirror the reality of the workplace, he said. “That’s where people are struggling,” Russ said. Adults who enter an apprenticeship program may already have a degree, while others may have a family to support, or they may not have enough money to pay for college. Apprenticeship offers another avenue to move ahead in a career, Russ said.
An apprenticeship can lead to a good job, with rewarding pay, Chet Jeppesen agreed.
As an electrician or industrial maintenance journeyman, a former apprentice can earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year and have no education debt, he said.
Newly married Bryson Jeppesen — Chet Jeppesen’s son — opted for an apprentice electrician position for Cameron Electric instead of pursuing a college degree.
It seemed like the perfect fit.
Before taking the apprenticeship job, Bryson Jeppesen spent a year and a half working at a hardware store and a few months rebuilding trucks for a company.
Pay for the job started at $14 per hour and he takes his classes online through CSI.
“One of the things I really like about being an electrician is the wages,” he said. “And I know I’ll always be able to find a job anywhere in the country in the electrical field.”
Although it will require about 4,000 hours of class time and 8,000 hours of work under a journeyman electrician, all the time will be spent in his area of specialty.
It can be challenging to hire journeyman electricians, so apprenticeships offer a way to train an interested person, and then hope they stay at the company for 25 years, he said.
Jeppesen started his new job in November, the same month he got married.
“I didn’t want to go to school and study things like history,” he said. “I enjoy working with my hands and I never wanted a desk job.”
For employees, apprenticeship offers a way to master skills through class time and on-the-job training, and it gives workers a way to earn while they learn, Russ said. It also provides them the assurance of a future with a good standard of living because they are gaining skills that are in demand.
Most companies know the value of retaining the employees they hire. They have made an investment in them and they want them to succeed — which also benefits the apprentice — he said.
Some companies offering apprenticeships will pay for college classes, and some even pay their employees to attend classes or offer a way for the employees to take classes online, Russ said.
Benefits for the industry include competent workers who adapt quickly to changing needs, lower employee turnover costs and lower starting wages for apprentice employees, who gradually earn increases in wages.
The required length of time for apprenticeship training ranges from one to six years, depending on the specific trade, while the majority of programs require three to four years of work and study to complete.
On the national level, companies that utilize apprenticeship programs retain 80 percent of their employees, but those statistics are not available for Idaho.
There are many reasons people leave jobs, Russ said, including desiring a pay increase, not being familiar with the expectations of the company going into the job, or simply seeing the program as a dead end.
In contrast, apprentices understand what is expected of them upon entering a job, and what wages they will make if they meet certain standards.
Although salaries vary from industry to industry, the average apprentice starting wage is about 40 to 50 percent of a journey worker’s pay rate, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
When a person with a degree is hired, he or she may or may not be qualified for the job, he said. An apprentice is specifically trained for it.
“Apprenticeships offer a future to my company,” Ty Cameron, owner of Cameron Electric, said.
Will apprenticeships close the job gap?
Whether apprenticeships will help close the job gap created by the low unemployment rate across the state is yet to be seen.
“The program would have to grow a lot at this point to make much of an impact,” Robinson said. “But it has to start somewhere.”
Industry in the Magic Valley just keeps expanding, which fuels the low unemployment rate, she said.
Other factors including the lack of available housing in the Magic Valley also contribute to unfilled positions at companies, she said.
Russ said he doesn’t think apprenticeships will completely fix the job gap, but they could play a role.
“I don’t think it will relieve all of it, but it will relieve some,” he said. “It provides another avenue that is typically not available.”
For people who are unemployed, underemployed or undereducated for a position, apprenticeship offers them an opportunity to move forward, he said.
“Employers see the value of having input in developing the standards for the education and on-the-job training for a position,” Russ said. “For employees, apprenticeships provide the pipelines to those opportunities.”
“I think apprenticeships are really important,” Cameron said. “They help bridge that gap in the workforce.”
Ninety percent of top officials in construction companies who participated in a survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America began their careers as apprentices, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
But apprenticeship programs face challenges: logistics and costs.
Mini-Cassia shoehorn its program into “zero hour,” before the start of the school day. That means early mornings for the apprentices, but school officials say the schedule is attractive to businesses and the best option for students. “We couldn’t make them choose between this class and a senior math class or an automotive class or an English class,” said Curtis Richins, director of the Cassia Regional Technical Center.
Students cannot use the state’s advanced opportunities program money for an apprenticeship course; that program only covers college-level courses. In Weiser’s case, the district is picking up the cost for the first-year College of Western Idaho HVAC courses, at $925 a pop.
Then there’s another challenge: one of perception.
A high school graduate who completes an apprenticeship and goes to work doesn’t count toward Idaho’s “60 percent goal.” The state wants 60 percent of its 25- to 34-year-olds to obtain a college degree or one-year professional certificate. Apprenticeships aren’t part of that mix — and a goal that has defined state education policy for the better part of a decade.
“We’ve kind of got ourselves into a narrow box,” Russ said.
Many educators also say the 60 percent goal gives short shrift to students who can leave high school and head straight into a good job.
“It’s definitely not a second-tier choice,” said Weiser High School Principal Dave Davies. “It’s another choice.”
In order for an apprenticeship to become a reality, the business must be the first entity at the table, Russ said. Once a business is engaged, the Department of Labor can take the lead on developing a curriculum to match industry’s needs. “We’ve taken that burden off of them, because it can be overwhelming,” Russ said.
Federal funding has helped.
In 2016, the state received more than $1.6 million in federal grants. The state exceeded the goals it set for the first grants, so the feds followed up with another $847,000 this year. The state can use grant money to develop an apprenticeship curriculum.
The state hasn’t just tried to increase the number of apprenticeships. The state has tried to develop programs in new fields. Apprenticeships are commonplace in building trades, so the state is trying to nurture programs in computers, IT and health-related professions.
As business owners — in many sectors — deal with the impacts of a low unemployment rate, they see the apprenticeship program as a way to grow their own workers.
“Businesses are stepping up, because they know how much it’s going to help them,” Department of Labor Director Melinda Smyser said.
One potential apprenticeship success story is taking place in Boise — as two historic rivals confront a shared problem.
For apprentices, including recent high school graduates, an EST job is a first step towards a career in health care. Apprentices can work this job while training for hard-to-fill nursing jobs.
The two large hospitals — competitors in so many other areas — are using the same model for apprenticeship programs, Russ said. That’s not uncommon. Some apprenticeship programs incorporate proprietary information, but in many cases, a curriculum can be easily shared, from business to business.
But sometimes, it’s tough to get schools to work together. It’s not necessarily a matter that schools are unwilling to share their curriculum, Russ said; instead, the schools don’t always have a vehicle to share it out.
From the beginning of the state’s apprenticeship boom, schools have been a critical partner in creating standards, Russ said. But some traditional obstacles are hard to overcome — such as a fear of change and a concern about funding.
“It’s been good, but it’s been challenging at the same time,” Russ said.
Study confirms joint labor-management programs outperform non-union ones
SEATTLE (Feb. 28, 2019) — A first-of-its-kind study of apprenticeship programs in Washington state finds that joint labor-management programs outperform non-union multi-employer partnerships and publicly subsidized employer programs in enrollment, completion rates, journey-level wages, and the inclusion and performance of underrepresented groups.
The Washington Apprenticeship Growth and Expansion Study (WAGES), conducted by Olympic Analytics for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, compared state and federal data from 2017 to determine the impact an apprenticeship’s governance and funding has on measurable outcomes. The detailed analysis found not only that joint labor-management apprenticeship programs (JLMPs) governed with union participation and support outperformed non-union programs, it also found:
● JLMPs provide a greater Return on Investment for apprentices and taxpayers than comparable non-union programs.
● Even as public officials have spent millions of dollars to subsidize employer-driver apprenticeship programs, JLMPs in high-growth and strategic industries do a better job of providing high-wage sustainable careers for apprentices.
● The completion rate for JLMPs was 8 percentage points higher (43.0% vs. 34.8%) than non-union programs. Successful JLMP apprentices achieved journey wages more than 50 percent higher than non-union completers ($34.42/hour vs. $22.93/hour).
Puget Sound Electrical JATC electrician apprentices train in Motor Control classroom lab exercises.
“The WAGES study confirms what makes perfect sense: when the people doing the work have a meaningful stake in a training program, it’s more successful,” said Larry Brown, President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “Joint labor-management apprenticeship programs are the gold standard for training the next generation of skilled workers. Elected officials being pressed by corporate interests to spend taxpayer dollars to subsidize lesser training programs should take note.”
Glen Freiberg, Director of the Northwest Laborers Employers Training Trust, agrees.
“The joint labor-management programs have a vested interest in the standards of apprenticeship and training being upheld to the highest expectations in the industry, while also creating opportunities for a diverse workforce and a living wage for the working class — all at no cost to the apprentice,” Freiberg said. “As this study shows, lesser programs have far less success. And success is measured through giving our contractors an edge by providing a safe, highly skilled workforce that they can count on.”
The Workforce Development Department of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO seeks to ensure universal access to portable skills and a voice in career development, continuity for those navigating the workforce system, and an economy that works for both workers and businesses. Learn more here.
The familiar high school rituals take place every spring. Athletes sign letters of intent to play for college programs as their coaches beam with pride, the photographs splashed across social media. Other high school seniors wave college acceptance letters as their names are announced at school assemblies.
But one school system in Virginia wanted to celebrate a different life-changing moment for the seniors who were starting careers right after graduation. In Henrico County, public school administrators held a ceremony in late March called “Career and Technical Letter-of-Intent Signing Day.”
“This is a celebration of students who are entering the workforce or post-secondary training with a plan,” said Mac Beaton, director of Henrico Schools’ Department of Career and Technical Education, in a Facebook post. “They’ve chosen to maximize their high school opportunities for career training and industry certifications, with an eye on becoming successful and financially secure much earlier in life.”
The students met with representatives from their future places of employment and both signed letters outlining what they would do before and during employment, as well as what training and compensatory benefits the employer would provide, and an estimate of the position’s overall value.
“Signing Day is a way of recognizing their hard work and the value of the career-preparation training they’ve received through Henrico Schools’ Career and Technical Education program,” Beaton said.
The impetus for the idea
Family members watch proudly as students meet with their future employers. (Photo: Henrico County Public Schools)
More than 5,000 students earn industry-based certifications in Henrico County each year, and that often means a job immediately upon graduation. For this first event, a dozen students were recognized as they signed letters of intent to work as apprentices or machinists for local and national companies.
Beaton said the idea for the recognition ceremony was rooted in a constant battle to show the importance of this kind of training.
“We’re always trying to figure out how to address the skills gap when the general mentality of parents is ‘I want my child to go to college,'” Beaton told Today Parents.
“One way to do this is to help them see the value of career and technical education,” he said. “When you start talking data that affects parents’ pocketbooks, that gets their attention.”
During the event, families and members of the media watched as students signed letters of intent. Just like athletes don caps representing their future teams, these students put on hats and other clothing representing the companies they would soon work for.
Lots of support
It may not get the same media attention, but Henrico County’s approach puts the focus on needed skills. (Photo: Henrico County Public Schools)
The event was a huge hit on social media, with fans praising the celebration.
“This is the best thing I’ve seen in years,” wrote Catherine DeAngelis. “It’s about time we celebrate the skilled workforce. We need to do that here, people need to see how important these students really are.”
Tricia Molloy agreed. “This is fabulous!! The world runs because of our tradesman and women. It’s wonderful to honor and celebrate those who join the trades.”
“College isn’t for everyone, so this is a wonderful way to support those who train vocationally for the workforce,” wrote Jean Mayo Campbell. “Maybe other districts will embrace this.”
Even “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe shared the school system’s post on his own Facebook page, commenting, “This is the way forward. No attempt to close the skills gap will ever succeed, until or unless we celebrate those who are willing to learn a skill that’s in demand. This is not just a terrific idea, it’s a model for every other technical school in the country … Here’s hoping others will follow Henrico’s lead.”
‘About time they got recognized’
At Construction Careers Academy in San Antonio, students signed commitment letters with their new employers. (Photo: Construction Careers Academy)
That’s likely what happened in San Antonio where Construction Careers Academy added a similar event to its annual “Academy Awards” ceremony in the spring. The magnet school prepares students for careers in the construction industry with a focus on one of six areas: architecture, construction management, engineering, carpentry, electrical/HVAC or plumbing/pipefitting/welding.
The school’s Program Coordinator Audrey Ethridge organized a signing event for graduating students after several people told her that it had been done at another school — likely Henrico County in Virginia, which has inspired many to do the same.
Students who earned jobs after a spring career fair took part in the signing ceremony with their new employers. The employers brought hats, T-shirts and other items and all the students signed commitment letters at the same time while parents and administrators watched.
“Employers were really excited to take part and very happy to have these students come work for them,” Ethridge tells MNN. Students were smiling broadly as they sat behind long tables with their employers behind them and their proud parents in the crowd, happy that their students were being recognized.
“Most schools will do some character awards, academic awards, did-you-show-up-for-school and athletic signing awards and nobody does anything for career and tech kids and it’s about time they got recognized.”