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The Thing About Apprenticeships

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‘The other four-year degree’ offers a career start without debt.

Nearly 70% of Americans do not have college degrees, according to The Poynter Institute.

“So you have a load of young people who are going to do, what?” says Jazelle Plummer, apprenticeship and training manager for the Delaware Department of Labor. She, and a lot of companies in Delaware, hope those young people will consider an apprenticeship.

A Registered Apprenticeship partners an employer with a beginner apprentice. The employer agrees that the apprentice will receive paid on- the-job training in addition to in-school technical instruction over a determined period of hours and years. At the end of that time, the apprentice receives journeyperson papers, a nationally recognized certificate that shows the apprentice is now well-versed, if not an expert, in the trade.

Apprenticeship is often called “the other four-year degree,” because most of the programs require 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 144 hours of classroom instruction, which usually takes about four years to accumulate. In that time, the apprentice receives regular raises as he or she meets certain goals.

In contrast to many college graduates, fully proficient workers who complete a Registered Apprenticeship earn an average of $50,000 per year. Over the course of their careers, they will typically earn $300,000 more than non-apprenticeship workers, says Plummer.

“Experience combined with classroom instruction is really a powerful way to learn,” says Jeremy McEntire, assistant director of POLYTECH Adult Education in Kent County. In a traditional education setting, a student learns in the classroom first and then, after getting a degree, goes into the workforce. “You’re studying. You’re getting all this knowledge and by the time you get out in the workforce, you remember maybe some of what you learned.”

In an apprenticeship, the student applies classroom knowledge every day on the job.

Rebecca Malone thinks it’s a great way to learn and advance in a career. Malone, 24, expects to
finish her apprenticeship in October with journeyman papers in water management. She’s already earned a certificate that allows her to run water treatment plants and currently runs four of them for Tidewater Utilities.

She says she learned so much more from the on-the-job training during
her apprenticeship, combined with the classroom time. In other courses she’s taken, she felt like she was taught to pass a test but didn’t really learn anything.

“It’s more of a real education,” says Malone, who first got interested in water management after seeing a wanted ad online.

The first step in finding an apprenticeship is to figure out what trades are out there, and which ones sound most interesting and rewarding.

Jazelle Plummer
Apprenticeship and Training Manager Delaware Department of Labor

There are 1,656 registered apprentices in Delaware and 417 employer sponsors, says Plummer. The top five occupations are electrician, plumber/pipefitter, HVAC, sheet metal worker and construction laborer. The department hopes to add a whole lot more apprenticeships in the next few years. There are openings in non-construction-related fields, like information technology, auto mechanics, hospitality and even health care — as a paramedic or certified nursing assistant.

For people who aren’t sure of what career is going to suit them, the three vocational-technical school districts in the state — Sussex Tech, POLYTECH and New Castle County Vocational Technical — offer courses for high school graduates to help them realize their aptitudes.

“Go sit down with a guidance counselor,” says Plummer.

After choosing a trade, there are two choices — find an entry-level job in that trade with a company that has an apprenticeship program, or start taking classes at the technical school. The schools work with the local companies hiring apprentices to get their students in. If the employer is registered with the state program, the Department of Labor will pay for all the classes.

As the apprentice reaches certain time and classroom goals, his or her pay increases to an agreed-upon amount that is the minimum the apprentice can make. But often, students make more than the minimum. One electrical apprentice was making $77,000 a year before he finished his program, says McEntire.

The benefits to the students are easily enumerated: they build valuable skills, gain higher wages, receive national credentials, advance in their careers and can do it tuition-free.

There are benefits for the employers as well, says Plummer. They develop
a pipeline of highly skilled, highly motivated workers; reduce recruitment costs; have lower turnover; and generally have increased productivity. Employers interested in becoming part of the Registered Apprenticeship program should contact the Department of Labor to set it up, she says. The department would like to increase its offerings.

“I just think it’s a win-win-win,” says Plummer.

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