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.
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.”