Illustrating the success of apprenticeship programs, Putman Media intern Alexandra Ditoro interviewed Melody Whitten, director of development for 58 Inc., a part of Shelby County Alabama's Economic Development Committee, to learn how its apprenticeship program is helping local manufacturers build their own talent pipelines.
The following is an excerpt from the interview. Read the full transcript here.
Alexandra: Looking more on it from the apprenticeship perspective, what are the benefits of apprenticeships to both manufacturers and students? Why do you think manufacturers tend to embrace programs like yours?
Melody: Well, the benefit for the company is normally it produces highly trained employees. And that's probably the primary reason is if an apprenticeship works out, then you have been able to take someone and while they're going to school to learn the skill that you need them to know, they've also been working in your facility and learning your culture and your way of producing your product. In the end, you end up with a highly trained employee.
It also creates a pipeline for skilled employees because if you, for example, add an apprentice, if you add maybe one a year or one every two years, then as you have people retiring out of those positions in your plant, you have apprentices that are coming up through the program and gaining more skills and so, there's a pipeline for those skilled employees.
It also reduces your turnover. The U.S. Department of Labor documents that approximately 91% of all apprentices stay with their employer. So, another concern we've had from employers is, "Okay, I've spent the money. I've put this apprentice through school for four years and year five they leave me and they go to another company." That is a concern. It's a valid concern and there's no way you can make an apprentice stay. You can't make any employees stay where they currently are. But the U.S. Department of Labor has tracked retention rates among apprentices and 91% of apprentices stay with their sponsor company. So, it does reduce turnover and it increases productivity because you're training people not only in theory in the classroom but also in application in the plant. They're really learning through the best of both worlds. They're going to school and learning how it should work, and then they're going to work and seeing how it actually does work and be able to apply those theories. And so, it's a great benefit to the employer.
For the apprentice, it provides them, of course, a career pathway. We have several apprentices in our program that were high school graduates. So, they went on industry tours with us their senior year of high school to these machine shops and saw that career path and thought that was something that was of interest to them. And after they went through the interview process and were selected, they started the program and went to work in the fall. So, it gave them a career pathway where before they didn't know what they wanted to do. They didn't know how to pursue a career in advanced manufacturing. Maybe they had never been in an advanced manufacturing plant until they went on an industry tour with us. So, it establishes a career pathway for them. And then, it also gives them progressive wages because throughout the life of a USDOL Registered Apprenticeship Program, apprentices have to experience an increase in wage periodically through the life of the program.
So, that can be at the end of every semester. It can be during a six-month evaluation. It can be annually. But periodically throughout the program, you have to assess the apprentice, how they're doing in school, how they're doing at work, and if all things are going well, then you have to progressively increase the apprentice's wages. So, they're starting out at X and will go to Y and Z throughout the course of the apprenticeship. And then by the end of the apprenticeship program, they should be at a certain percentage of what a journeyman level pay would be. And, of course, that gives the apprentice a higher-quality of life potential because they may be experiencing higher wages starting out than their counterparts. And then they're, of course, getting those progressive wages throughout the life of the apprenticeship program. So, their quality of life and hiring potential is greater.
So, take, for example, the high school students that we have that came to us just as they had graduated, went through the interview process, and went to work. Their starting wage, let's say for example, was $14 an hour. Well, where, as a high school graduate with no other skillsets, could you go and make $14 an hour? And then if you get a raise at the end of every semester or every six months and you're going up to $15 an hour, $16 an hour, $17 an hour. If you take that apprentice and pull a counterpart from his high school class that graduated a year ago, are they in school? Are they getting school paid for at no cost to themselves? Are they making $14, $15, $16 an hour? So, the quality of life potential for those apprentices is far greater.
Then, of course, it gives them a nationally recognized credential because U.S. Department of Labor credential is portable and it's recognized across the nation. So, once these apprentices do complete their program and they do choose to leave their company, maybe their family gets transferred out of state and they want to be close to their family, so they move to Texas. They could take that journeyman-level credential to any place that hires welders. And that is automatically recognized as a credential that is portable and they could go to work anywhere with that skillset.