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Apprenticeships, co-op programs create paid, on-the-job opportunities for students

Frank Datillo | Photo courtesy of Patriot Insulation Contractors

Frank Datillo likes puzzles, and he sees work as a commercial insulation apprentice as one large, moving puzzle.

“It’s about seeing the finished product, knowing what it looked like when you walked in at the start of an eight-hour shift and how well it’s made at the end,” he says.

Datillo tried a semester of college, but discovered he really wanted to work with his hands. So, he applied for an apprenticeship through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to start something new.

At first, it felt daunting to start a job right out the gate, with Patriot Insulation Contractors. But now, in his final year of the four-year apprenticeship, Datillo says he’s thoroughly enjoyed learning while earning a paycheck.

“They treat me like family and really teach me so I can do the best I can. There’s other guys that do work at industrial sites, so the pay is higher for them. But I’d rather take the hands-on learning any day,” he says.

Apprenticeships Gain Momentum

Apprenticeships are getting more traction as a career path in Delaware, now that momentum is shifting away from the message of starting college before being able to compete in the workforce.

“From a policy perspective, it significantly narrowed the opportunities that were presented,” says Bryon Short, executive vice president of the Delaware Contractors Association. “If college is right for what you want in your career, then it’s important. But there’s a whole other world that will welcome you if you have different game plans.”

This college-focused culture may be changing in Delaware. The state’s registered apprenticeship program has 1,600 apprentices to date, which is a 40% bump from where it was in 2016, according to Kyle Maguire, the Delaware Department of Labor’s apprenticeship and training manager.

“We’re seeing a lot of buy-in from small shops in this program, so they really have a direct impact on the training process and how the workforce is developed,” Maguire says. “It’s a two-way street.”

To participate in Delaware’s apprenticeship program, a person must find a job with one of the 370 companies that work with the state or convince their employer to sign on. On average, the starting salary is $14 an hour and journeyman wages are $24 an hour, Maguire adds.

For employers like Dave Kitto at Patriot Insulation, there’s vested interest in apprentices because they represent the future of the company. Kitto started as an apprentice himself and eventually worked his way up to the top of this company.

Dave Kitto | Photo courtesy of Patriot Insulation Contractors

“It’s training the next generation of talent, so I do take a mentorship view of it,” he says. “We all started from somewhere, and you have to be patient to help the next guard develop those skills needed. It’s an investment, and when we have a quality candidate, we try and hire them up quickly.”

Changing The Path To Opportunity

About 35 years ago, when Paul Morris was a guidance counselor, the William T. Grant Foundation issued a famous study that showed about 50% of high school students go to college. He would push each of the seniors he worked with to go to higher education, even if they were unsure.

Fast forward to 2015, when the Grant Foundation revisited the study only to find that number still at 50%. Morris, now Delaware Technical Community College’s associate vice president for workforce development and community education, says that shows there are a lot of kids out there not sure they want to commit to another four years of school.

“What they end up doing is working to support themselves, so why not coach them ahead of when it’s time to make that choice?” Morris says.

An unintended consequence of the push for a college degree was a workforce shortage in the trades, Short notes.

“We need plumbers, we need welders and heavy equipment operators. And we have not expressed their value to our society until the past few years,” he says. “In some ways, you realize what’s been happening way too late.”

But Delaware Technical Community College’s Office of Work-Based Learning aims to change the way of thinking of how Delawareans work. Founded three years ago and now under the leadership of Bryan Horsey, the office’s goal is to bridge the skills gap between school and high-demand careers in Delaware by drawing business partners into workforce development.

“It’s one thing to constantly hear from an employer what they’re looking for. But now they can adapt the program to meet the goals,” Horsey says. “It’s really created a back-and-forth between the schools and the employers that never really existed. It’s a call to arms for employers to participate in the process.”

The program invites businesses to provide opportunities for apprenticeships and cooperative education (co-ops) for students, as a way not only to get high school students some hands-on experience, but to incentivize a way to hire locally. 

For the 2020-21 school year, the Office of Work-Based Learning is launching a partnership with Diamond Technologies and other employers to conduct a virtual mentorship program with students. Many seniors at Delaware high schools will start working on their senior projects, a yearlong endeavor that culminates in a product or a presentation. In the first meeting, a mentor will help the student identify industry challenges. From there, the mentor would offer advice and guidance to the student as the project takes shape.

“Economic development is a key issue at hand,” Horsey says. Employers are “always looking for talent, and in some career fields, there are shortages. We’re competing nationally now, so the idea is to best marry students who are graduating with jobs here in Delaware based on demand.”

An Organic Pipeline To Employment

The vocational-technical high schools also fill the gap of opportunity, by creating an organic pipeline between education and employers via apprenticeships and other networking opportunities. New Castle Vo-Tech Apprenticeship Programs Supervisor Mark Wilson says there are too many businesses to single out.

“I’ve got the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 313 offering 100 apprenticeships and others, like MDavis & Sons, that offer 10. Some of them solicit apprenticeships for industries across the board,” Wilson says. “It’s all about the grassroots connections and spring-boarding off that to make a great career.”

Unions can also take a different approach in apprenticeship training. Datillo had to take a test to start in the Heat and Frost Insulators Local Union 42’s program. Once he passed, he began taking night classes once a week while he started to work. Pay is also set through collective bargaining agreements.

It can be intimidating starting in a union and not knowing anyone, Datillo says. But what he learned from the experience was to stay determined and let the work speak for itself.

“Take it seriously, so they take you seriously. I’ve always been competitive, so I’ve wanted to do the best, and when you do that, you will be recognized,” he says. “If you got the work ethic, you got the opportunity to make a name for yourself.”

By Katie Tabeling

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