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Apprenticeships: More Candidates Needed as Workers Retire

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Are you interested in apprenticeships, but not sure about job prospects after the apprenticeship ends? Jamie Chambers has one simple fact for you to consider: “For every person entering an apprenticeship program today, four people are retiring from skilled positions in the trade,” says the director of workforce development for the Delaware Contractors Association (DCA).

That situation will take some time to correct itself, but Chambers does believe a gradual rise in the number of students enrolled in apprenticeship programs is starting to fill the gap. At the same time, national surveys are seeing changes in how high school students view their educational futures. While college is still a great path, the belief that college is the right path for everyone has faded. Surveys show the rate of high school students entering college in 2022 was 62%, down from an all-time high of 70.1% in 2009 and a drop of more than 4% from the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

According to the Delaware Department of Labor, which administers the state’s registered apprenticeship program, there are currently 1,656 registered apprentices in training with 417 employer sponsors, representing the more than 20 occupation categories that have programs.

The top five apprentice programs by enrollment are electricians; the combined category of plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters; HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning); sheet-metal workers; and construction labor.

“Participating as a registered apprentice is an excellent way to earn while you learn while getting free tuition,” says Jazelle Plummer, apprenticeship and training manager for the DOL, “and the present draw for students is that the earning potentials of these jobs are becoming well-known.”

The Other 4-Year Degree

According to Plummer, most registered apprenticeship programs last four years and consist of 8,000 hours of on-the-job training. For each year of training, a minimum of 144 hours of related instruction is required. After you complete these requirements, you’re eligible to receive journeyperson papers. As a journey person, you will be nationally recognized as having a well-rounded ability in all aspects of your trade.

Edward Capodanno, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Delaware, says the construction industry in the state continues to remain strong, and money from the federal infrastructure bill is still available. “Additionally, there are new schools being constructed downstate and in Wilmington,” he says.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic affected apprentice programs mostly in a positive manner. “As an essential business, the construction industry did not shut down as many others were forced to do,” Capodanno notes, which meant that apprentices continued working as well.

There were also other benefits. “As a result of advances it made in remote learning, the pandemic was in that way a blessing in disguise,” Plummer says. “We learned so much about how to improve the communications process. Now students can go to class on their smartphones from wherever they happen to be.”

Work is also underway to expand the reach of apprenticeship programs into traditional high schools, to have them expand beyond the traditional craft unions and to get more young women involved.

Chambers points out that Appoquinimink School District, which includes Middletown, Chesapeake City, Townsend and parts ofBear, has instituted a School of Skilled and Technical Trades, even though it is not a vo-tech school district. “It has a four-year program that started as part of the Pathways program in the construction area that graduates students with OSHA and forklift certifications,” she says.

Working in cooperation with Delaware Technical Community College at its Middletown training center, the program earns Appoquinimink students up to nine college credits. They then have the option of continuing in college or beginning an apprenticeship program, having earned an important advanced standing that reduces the need to take classes while training on the job.

“We also want to take registered apprentice programs wherever young women are,” Plummer says, noting that the trades are still male-dominated. The Department of Labor is beginning to work with health systems to provide apprenticeships in healthcare, an industry that traditionally has had more women employees.

The construction industry also needs to reach out to people of color, Chambers says. “When we talk to Black students about apprenticeship programs, they rightfully point out that there are not many people ‘who look like us’ in the field,” she says. As one measure to help close this gap, the DCA has started a Black Skilled Trades and Careers Council to counsel the Department of Labor and to mentor students.

Everyone also agrees there needs to be constant and effective communication to recruit students, to assure parents of the value of apprenticeships for their children, and to recruit more companies to financially support and sponsor apprentice programs.

Chambers says it is important to recognize state government for leading the apprenticeship efforts. “We really need to credit the Department of Labor over the past four years for creating streamlined programs to make it all work better for everyone,” Chambers says.


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