Hundreds of area youth are learning job skills and earning income without spending thousands on a college education.
Apprenticeships are alive and well, and poised to expand from traditional fields into high-tech areas. Local unions run free apprenticeships in a wide range of trades, including electricians, sprinkler fitters, painters, elevator constructors, bricklayers and boilermakers.
And now the Workforce Development Board of Herkimer, Madison and Oneida Counties is offering grants to help area employers meet the demand for skilled workers by offering apprenticeships. So far most of the takers have been advanced manufacturing firms, said Nate Crossett, program director of the board’s American Apprenticeship Initiative.
“The major issue is that people, especially in manufacturing, are retiring at a rate that these local companies just can’t keep up with,” he said. “Apprenticeships were a big deal in the ’70s and ’80s.”
But then came the push to send students to college and the apprenticeship programs declined, leaving no one with the needed skill sets to replace aging workers, Crossett said.
“It’s putting manufacturing in danger of not really being able to compete locally, nationally or even internationally,” he said. “That was the main premise of why this grant was created.”
And that’s why Stephen Copperwheat, president of Environmental Composites Inc., in Utica, decided to apply for grants to start two apprenticeship programs. The founding workforce is getting older, he said.
“We’re a relatively new manufacturer,” he said. “We’ve been in business now for about 10 years, but we have a need for skilled maintenance people in the manufacturing setting. We have to have a mechanic basically, a skilled millwright.”
So a maintenance technician apprentice started several months ago and the company now is looking for an apprentice electrician, he said.
The Workforce Development Board received a $2.9 million federal grant to run the American Apprenticeship Initiative in 19 Central New York counties from 2015 to 2020. The grants give companies up to $3,000 per apprentice to cover the cost of education beyond on-the-job training, Crossett said. They’re also available for apprenticeships in cybersecurity and information technology; nanotechnology; and drones, but nanotechnology hasn’t appeared locally yet and the drone industry isn’t really hiring yet, he said.
But apprenticeships have started through the Air Force Research Lab and the Griffiss Institute in Rome, Crossett said.
“We’re starting to branch out and do apprenticeships in information technology because that’s the future as well,” he said.
Apprenticeships are a great way for young people to train for a skilled job with good pay and benefits without going into debt paying for college, said Patrick Costello, president of the Central New York Labor Council and assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 43. Apprenticeships are free and apprentices get paid a portion of a journeyman’s salary while they learn with the amount going up as their skills increase, he said.
“It’s like going to college and getting paid all the time you’re going, getting a degree in a trade without having any student debt,” Costello said. “So, it’s a pretty good deal.”
And journeymen in the building trades aren’t left stranded and unemployed by the plant closures that have afflicted this area, he pointed out.
Costello, too, sees the model working for a wider variety of industries, including health care, for example. The limitation is economics, he said.
“It’s expensive to have a bona fide, realistic apprenticeship program,” he said. “I think the only way you can do it is to have the employers buy in.”
Unions pay for the programs in the skilled trades and now the apprenticeship initiative grants are helping other industries.
“It’s the industry investing in the future of the industry,” Costello said. “It’s a good model.”
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