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  ·   By Catherine Gewertz, Education Week   ·  Link to Article

Go-Between Groups Help Businesses, Schools Shape Apprenticeships

It sounds great on paper: Schools and businesses team up to offer students a chance at real-world work. Teenagers get paid while they build skills, and they earn credentials that create new opportunities for them.

But in reality, those programs require the coordination of many moving parts—and sometimes a lot of paperwork—to succeed. Increasingly, schools and businesses are turning to a new breed of concierge service that handles all those details.

These organizations help businesses set up apprenticeships—or other forms of career-focused learning—and define the skills students must master in order to earn specified credentials. They coordinate with community colleges to dovetail training with students' work experiences. They make arrangements with local high schools so students can divide their time among college training courses, high school classes, and work.

Not all these "intermediary" services function exactly the same way. In Massachusetts, 16 regional workforce-development boards build partnerships between schools and employers to craft curriculum and to offer internships, job-shadow days, and career exploration. In Nashville, the nonprofit PENCIL (for Public Education Needs Community Involvement and Leadership) enlists community and business partners to offer a range of services, including career-focused study in local high schools.

In South Carolina, the Apprenticeship Carolina program helps businesses reach high schools, community colleges, and the U.S. Department of Labor to offer registered apprenticeships. When the service set up shop in the state's technical-college system 10 years ago, there were 90 registered apprenticeships in South Carolina; now, there are more than 1,000. More than 28,000 people have completed youth or adult apprenticeships in the past decade.

"They walk us through all the steps, help us with all the red tape, to get our apprenticeships approved," said Vincent Lombardy, the training and employee-development manager at VTL Precision, an automotive-engineering company near Charleston.

"Without them, we'd have to have someone full time on our staff who's really schooled in how these government systems work, all the paperwork," he added.

Apprenticeship Carolina can often win federal approval for its companies' apprenticeships within a week because Labor Department staffers are familiar with its track record, said Susan Pretulak, who leads Apprenticeship Carolina as the vice president of economic development for the 16-campus South Carolina Technical College system.

The South Carolina model is one that Labor Department officials "want to replicate around the country," Amy Firestone, a senior adviser in the department's apprenticeship office, said last summer at Apprenticeship Carolina's annual "signing day," an event that celebrates new apprentices.

The role of intermediary organizations like Apprenticeship Carolina is increasingly important as businesses—particularly small and medium-sized companies—search for workers with the skills they need, said Kermit Kaleba, the federal policy director for the National Skills Coalition, an advocacy group that focuses on career readiness.

Those companies often can't afford to set up their own internal training programs and don't always have strong relationships with pipelines such as colleges or high schools, he said.

"There's a real value in having a dedicated individual or institution that's able to serve that interface role," Kaleba said.

A Changing Focus

In trying to coordinate the pieces necessary for effective career-oriented learning, intermediary organizations reflect a major shift in the national policy conversation.

Policymakers are increasingly arguing that the country has been too focused on getting students to earn bachelor's degrees. They point to the 30-million-plus jobs that pay well and don't require the time and expense of four-year degrees, and they're pressing businesses and schools to build pathways that lead to those "middle skill" jobs.

President Donald Trump has called for a major expansion of youth and adult apprenticeshipsand proposed a new, streamlined approval process to make it happen.

President Barack Obama also led an apprenticeship initiative, which sent $265 million into those programs, including the first-ever federal budget allocation for apprenticeships: $90 million in fiscal 2016. Congress approved another $95 million in fiscal 2017.

Experts estimate that there are about 1 million apprenticeships in the United States today. Only about half are registered with the Labor Department. Registered programs require mastery of specified skills, confer nationally recognized credentials, and carry job-safety and minimum-pay protections. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of registered apprenticeships rose from 375,000 to 505,000, according to federal data.

Employers often place added value on job candidates who completed registered apprenticeships, since the requirements of those programs are recognized industrywide, experts say.

"You get a journeyman credential from the Department of Labor, and that's gold. You're definitely going to get looked at" in job interviews, said Mitchell Harp, the dean of apprenticeships at Trident Technical College, which works with Apprenticeship Carolina to coordinate training for local apprenticeships in the Charleston area.

But creating a good apprenticeship and getting it registered can be a daunting process. When VTL Precision wanted to get started in 2014, Apprenticeship Carolina dispatched one of its six regional consultants for a sit-down meeting.

The consultant helped VTL leaders understand the Department of Labor's standards and competencies for apprentices and customize them to meet the company's needs, Lombardy said. They worked together to create a workplace-training plan that met federal requirements and meshed well with technical courses offered at Trident Technical College, he said.

Apprenticeship Carolina also helps VTL submit the annual paperwork to receive state tax credits of $1,000 per apprentice, Lombardy said.

Many Moving Parts

Harp describes the way the K-12, college, and employer pieces come together through the technical-college system, where Apprenticeship Carolina is based.

Representing Trident Tech, Harp reaches out to local high schools to connect students to employers who offer apprenticeships. He also meets regularly with local employers to see if he can interest them in offering apprenticeships. Once they're interested, he said, he connects them with regional Apprenticeship Carolina consultants who explain and support the process. (The support is free but businesses must pay their own apprentices.)

"Our local Apprenticeship Carolina consultant, I've got her on speed dial," Harp said.

Apprenticeship Carolina does its own reaching out to businesses and high schools, even sending representatives into high school lunchrooms and career centers to connect with students, said Pretulak, the initiative's leader. said.

Once an apprenticeship is up and running, Apprenticeship Carolina coordinates the collection of documents that will be submitted to the Labor Department to award apprentices their credentials.

Ty'Celia Young's case shows how it works. A senior in high school, she's in her second year of VTL Precision's industrial-mechanics program. When she masters required competencies during her 10 to 15 hours of work each week, her VTL supervisor signs off and updates her file. When she passes required courses in pneumatics, hydraulics, and other subjects at Trident Tech, the registrar there signs off and updates Ty'Celia's file. That collection ultimately goes to the Department of Labor for evaluation.

When the department awards Ty'Celia her credential, she will qualify for entry-level positions doing maintenance in advanced manufacturing, jobs that will likely pay $14 to $20 per hour, VTL's Lombardy said.

Ty'Celia plans to enroll in a bachelor's degree program in mechanical engineering next fall, and she's not sure yet whether she'll work part time in her new trade while she studies. But she said that her apprenticeship has set her up with valuable assets as she leaves high school: college credits, a certificate from Trident Tech, a nationally recognized credential, and two years of paid work experience in a field related to her career goals.

Tim Hardee, the president of the South Carolina Technical College system, said that the state's apprenticeship program also provides valuable options that don't include bachelor's degrees.

"It might be different than what their parents viewed as a golden ticket, that four-year degree. But there are other ways to get that golden ticket now," Hardee said. "We see apprenticeships as a way to provide the workforce employers need in the coming years, and youth apprenticeship is a way to start that early."