LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Four years out of high school, 22-year-old Robert Williams says he is “pretty comfortable” earning more than $20 an hour – plus overtime – in a job he finds challenging.
A machinist at Atlas Machine & Supply in southwestern Jefferson County, Williams repairs the industrial equipment that keeps factories running – or, as he put it, “to fix the things nobody else wants to.”
“I love what I do. It’s different. Not a lot of people can do it, you know, or even try to do it,” he said. “… It’s an art, really. It’s intricate. It’s precise. You’ve got to have great attention to detail.”
Williams learned the “art” of machining through a four-year apprenticeship program at Atlas Machine, after which he became a “journeyman” machinist.
The program involves classroom instruction, but unlike many of his peers who attended college, Williams didn’t need to borrow a dime. Instead, Atlas paid the cost.
Employer- and union-sponsored apprenticeships have been around for at least 80 years, churning out workers primarily in building trades and manufacturing like electricians, carpenters and welders. But Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration has given such programs a new emphasis as a centerpiece of his Labor Cabinet’s plan to ease a skilled-worker shortage.
Using $250,000 a year in new state funding secured by Bevin, the cabinet expanded its apprenticeship staff from one person to five and created a Division for Apprenticeships, Kentucky Labor Secretary Derrick Ramsey said.
“With the apprenticeship opportunities you can make the same kind of money (as a college graduate), if not more – in some cases, several times more – and certainly finish up with no (student) debt,” said Ramsey, who has traveled the state in the past year to promote apprenticeships.
Last year Kentucky was awarded a $896,000 federal grant aimed at adding 1,300 apprentices, particularly “underserved populations” like women and minorities, and expanding the model to sectors like health care. Indiana was awarded $1.3 million for a similar effort.
There are 2,787 apprentices in the state, according to the Labor Cabinet. Ramsey said his overall goal is to double that within three years.
Atlas Machine is among 160 employers, unions and joint union-employer committees that have registered their apprentice programs with the state agency.
Apprentice programs do not have to be registered, but those that are get state approval in exchange for adhering to minimum classroom, work and wage requirements.
Generally, apprentices work full-time at a wage that is at least 60 percent of what they can expect after exiting the program – while also completing 144 hours of classroom time a year. The programs last at least one year and up to six.
At Atlas Machine, apprentices start by making $12 an hour and progress to about a $20 hourly rate over the four-year program, including the opportunity to earn more with voluntary overtime.
While the ability to bypass college is a big sell for apprenticeships, their classroom requirements can often double as college credit.
Two of the biggest apprentice providers in Louisville – the Louisville Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Center and the Indiana-Kentucky-Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters – also provide associates degrees in applied sciences from Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College system through their programs.
The two programs, supported jointly by labor unions and contractors, churn out hundreds of electricians, carpenters and millwrights a year.
Williams’ apprenticeship at Atlas required one night a week of classroom instruction by the Kentuckiana Machining Association.
He is now a “journeyman” machinist – an industry designation that signifies proficiency in the trade.
Family-owned Atlas has been taking on about a dozen apprentices each year since 2004 out of necessity, company officials said.
Harold Morgan, Atlas’ Louisville regional manager, said the company needs to train machinists internally because there aren’t enough of them available in the job market.
Apprenticeships are ‘ideal’ but also ‘expensive’
Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said Kentucky officials are right to talk up the benefits of apprenticeship, calling it an “ideal” way to train workers for jobs.
But apprenticeships are not very practical, he said. One reason is that they are “very expensive,” and not many employers are willing to pay an apprentice for working and also pay for their education in the field.
In fact, apprenticeships have been on the decline in the United States for 40 years, Carnevale said.
He said that’s because the blue-collar jobs for which apprentice training works well – in construction and manufacturing – have been “disappearing” for decades, mainly due to automation.
It’s also because what used to be called “vocational” education was “decimated” beginning in the 1980s, as school districts opted instead for a “high school to Harvard” model in which all students are pushed toward college.
Now there is a broad recognition that high schools have gone “too far” by marginalizing education for trades careers, contributing a shortage of workers skilled in blue-collar occupations, Carnevale said.
For Ramsey, part of his goal is to show Kentucky students that college “is not the only way to be successful.”
“Vocational has either been squeezed out, choked out or stigmatized out,” he said
Union programs provide many apprentices
To Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, there’s “irony” in the Bevin administration’s push for more apprenticeships because it’s unions – in conjunction with their employers – that for decades have churned out the “vast majority” of apprentices in the state.
At the same time, the governor’s administration favors Republican policies like making Kentucky a Right to Work state and repealing the prevailing wage requirement on public construction projects, which are aimed at weakening unions, he said.
“At least it’s a recognition of this training methodology that we have been using effectively for decades,” Londrigan said.
Ramsey said his goal is to increase apprenticeships among union and non-union employers alike.
He said he doesn’t know what effect a Right to Work law – which would prevent employees from being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment at union shops – might have on the apprenticeship effort.
“As long as we can advance this state, that is what I want to do,” he said. “The people of Kentucky deserve it.”
Broadening model to other fields
Beyond increasing the number of apprentices, Ramsey said another goal is to bring the apprentice model to industries like healthcare, software development and information technology.
Today, Kentucky employers have apprenticeships in 38 trades – for example, machinist, electrician and plumber. Ramsey wants to grow that to 150 trades.
Louisville-based Norton Healthcare, for example, plans to start a nursing apprenticeship this year for “top area student nurses with good grades, good references and a desire to be the best.”
In a letter supporting the state’s federal grant, Norton said it’s also looking at apprenticeships for occupations like surgical, pharmacy and neurodiagnostic technicians.
Jackie Beard, who oversees workforce development for Norton, said in an interview that the nurse apprenticeship will complement – but not substitute for – the two-year and four-year college degrees that nurses must obtain.
Apprenticeships, she said, are “new in the healthcare environment and we’re just exploring ways to see how it might work – or not work – for us.”
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