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Apprenticeships a Boon to Students, Workforce

In 1911, Wisconsin became the pioneer for the Registered Apprenticeship system in the United States, and in 1937, Congress enacted the National Apprenticeship Act establishing the program as it is today.

Apprenticeships prepare workers for skilled trades by combining on-the-job learning with in-class instruction. They require a written contract between the apprentice, employer and State of Wisconsin, which outlines the terms—such as length of training, specific skills to be learned, number of classroom hours and apprentice wage schedules.

The Department of Workforce Development−Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards guides apprenticeships in the state. The agency works with employers and other organizations (such as Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Wisconsin, for construction-related trades) along with all 16 Wisconsin technical colleges—including WCTC—for paid-related and other instruction. Currently, more than 670 students are enrolled in classes for 13 apprenticeship programs at WCTC.

Upon completing all requirements, apprentices take a trade-specific exam to earn a credential that denotes expertise in the field.

Educating a workforce

Jason Bergholte, instructor in WCTC’s Industrial Electrician apprenticeship program, says apprenticeships are appealing to students for several reasons.

“The greatest benefits for them are job security, excellent training, a bona fide education, and technical knowledge and skills attainment from on-the-job experience,” he said, noting most students thrive in the program. “There’s a very high completion rate in our apprenticeships. Our students want to succeed; they’ve got a lot of skin in the game from day one.”

Added Mike Shiels, WCTC dean of Applied Technologies, “For students, it’s an investment in their future. For employers, it’s an investment in their workforce.”

Quad/Graphics relies on apprenticeships as a pipeline for skilled workers, said Nate Butt, production support director who oversees the program for the company’s multiple U.S. locations.

“Apprenticeship is our No. 1 source of talent acquisition, bar none. We have 101 current apprentices and last year, graduated 26,” he said.

On-the-job training is key to an apprentice’s understanding, Butt said, but so is the classroom piece. “That’s where the theory comes in. The curriculum is very structured to a specific trade.”

Quad has been fortunate to have retained many of its former apprentices—something he credits to “good mentoring, good managing and a good environment.” Now, he said, those journey-level workers help mentor the new apprentices.

Investing in people

For students Jesse Dull and Alyssa Davis, apprenticeships have provided them with new career paths after previous military, job and academic experiences.

Dull was an avionics craftsman in the Air Force, and then became an avionics mechanic for an aerospace company. He tired of frequent job-related travel, so he began working as an apprentice for a local manufacturing company before joining Quad as an Industrial Electrician apprentice. Additionally, he’s working toward an Automation Systems Technology (AST) associate degree.

“You can have all kinds of experience, but once you have that journeyman’s card (credential), it can open a lot of doors,” he said.

Davis earned a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, but developed an interest in machinery. She began working as a plastic injection operator at Aptar, used tuition reimbursement and started pursuing an AST associate degree at WCTC. She then shifted into an automation technician role and added the Mechatronics Technician apprenticeship.

Her bosses recognized her tenacity and encouraged Davis to follow her passion, something for which she is grateful. “If you have the drive, they are going to make it happen for you. I have a lot of loyalty to Aptar,” she said.

Needs of the future

While there has been an uptick in the number of apprenticeships in recent years, specifically in the construction area, said Kelly Tourdot, vice president of ABC of Wisconsin, scores of skilled workers will still be needed.

“Skilled crafts rank among the top five hardest roles to fill. Forty-one percent of the current construction workforce will retire by 2031—and we’re needing to replace those people,” she said.