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The following blog was written by Stacey Jarrett Wagner, a Workforce Systems Development Manager with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), and originally posted to the NIST MEP Manufacturing Innovation Blog

When I was growing up, I was fascinated by apprenticeships – really!  I was an avid reader of history, ancient and otherwise, and apprenticeships always meant adventure.  One could apprentice with Greek philosophers, British knights, Teutonic alchemists, and farmers, tradespeople and barbers (who were also doctors).  You could apprentice in a household or a business.  And once your apprenticeship was complete, you commanded respect as a trained and educated person with skills to play a useful role in society.

Apprenticeships have always been a stepping stone for both a good job and a great story.  Those tantalizing tales I read as a kid centered, mostly, on a young person’s indenture to some mysterious craftsperson and it always lead to mischief: wild chases, first-time love affairs, and messy screw-ups.  But they also led to the apprentice learning about life, love and labor – specifically the skills to be someone you weren’t before, but better.

The master-storyteller, Walt Disney, even got into the act when he produced the iconic movie, “Fantasia,” with a scene called The Sorcerers’ Apprentice, which to this day still spooks me.  There are also plenty of modern-day books about apprentices: “The Apprentice” (Lewis Libby), “The Apprentice” (Tess Gerritsen), “The Apprentice Series” (James Bryan Smith) and “Rangers Apprentice” (John Flanagan), to name just a few, and a TV show by that name as well (I know I don’t need to tell you who stars in that!). In the modern vernacular, the term sorcerers’ apprentice, was immortalized by “The Sorcerers’ Apprentice,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe written in 1797.

But in the last few decades, the term “apprentice” lost much of its luster, as the term became (wrongly) associated with uninteresting vocational work.  Additionally, some of the most successful apprenticeships were offered by unions, but with the decline of private-sector unions, there have been fewer opportunities for students to participate in apprenticeship pathways to a middle-class life.

Luckily, as in any good story, what goes around, comes around, and apprenticeships are once again becoming popular as a way to receive a work-based education. Recently the Obama Administration announced new investments in American Apprenticeship Grants, This competition, to be launched in fall 2014, will focus on partnerships to: 1) create apprenticeship models in new, high-growth fields, 2) align apprenticeships to career learning and advancement, and 3) scale existing successful apprenticeship models. The U.S. Department of Labor is hosting six industry roundtables in June 2014 for a “listening” tour.  Included in the dates is a roundtable on June 19th in Chicago on manufacturing.

The apprentice grant program will make $100 million available to partnerships of employers and employer organizations, community colleges, WIBs, non-profits, and labor and training organizations.  MEP centers – with their direct conduit to small manufacturers – are particularly encouraged to participate in this program. While the grants won’t be released until the fall, the summer would be a good time to look at the Apprenticeship Office website for more information and imagine your participation in this important initiative.  Initiatives such as these will, after time, eliminate the hole in the manufacturing talent pipeline by providing manufacturing-based training and certification.  And you can be part of that sea-change.  Believe me, it’s not sorcery that makes change happen.  It’s you.

This blog was written and submitted by Oklahoma Office of Apprenticeship staff member Cynthia McClain.  Great work Cynthia! 

Nancy Hedrick had worked in an industrial setting but had limited mechanical aptitude when she was selected as a Power Station Mechanic apprentice at Western Farmers Electric Cooperative’s (WFEC) power plant located near Hugo, Oklahoma.  She had worked nine (9) years as a lumber grader for a saw mill in southeastern Oklahoma.  The non-traditional experience came in handy when Nancy was hired as a temporary worker and placed at WFEC operating tractors and brush hogs.

Above:  Power Station Mechanic apprentice Nancy Hedrick, who is employed and sponsored by Western Farmers Electric Cooperative Power Plant, near Hugo, Oklahoma, repairs a gear box which is part of a drive system in the ash handling system of the plant.

An excellent attitude and work ethic helped Nancy, a married mother of two girls, move from that temporary job into a regular, full-time position with WFEC in the “Wash Down” area.  This position involved washing down the coal conveying system at the plant, keeping them free of coal dust and debris and operating smoothly.  When a Utility Worker position came open at the WFEC Plant, Nancy applied for the position and was selected.  When the power station mechanic apprenticeship position came open at the WFEC power plant, Nancy saw it as an opportunity to continue that career movement.  The Apprenticeship Program is a structured learning program consisting of on-the-job training and academic course work.  Nancy met the minimum qualifications for the apprenticeship program, applied and was selected.  Again, her excellent work ethic and attitude helped Nancy rise above the other applicants for the apprenticeship position and once selected, she leaned forward into the opportunity with everything she had.  

Above:  WFEC Power Plant located near Hugo, Oklahoma.  WFEC has five generating facilities located at Mooreland, Anadarko and Hugo, and a total power capacity of more than 1,700 MW when purchased hydropower is included.  WFEC owns and maintains more than 3,600 miles of transmission line to more than 265 substations.  Approximately 380 employees work at WFEC.  Members consist of 22 distribution cooperatives, located in Oklahoma and New Mexico, in addition to portions of Texas and Kansas. WFEC also serves Altus Air Force Base.

“Nancy experienced a bit of a rocky start at first, probably due to her lack of mechanical experience” reports supervisor Allan Ousley.  “But then, something clicked as Nancy started getting her hands dirty and working with equipment.  Nancy is doing as well as any other apprentice in the program.  Nancy works extremely well and does not require constant supervision and/or attention.  She follows correct procedures and standards and has an excellent attitude and attendance.  Nancy fits in very well at work and rotates among various work groups in the mechanical area.  She asks questions, asks for help when she needs it, and there are no conflicts in the on-the-job training portion of the apprenticeship program” reports supervisor Ousley.  “She is held to the same standard as other apprentices and is doing as well as many who have preceded her.”  Nancy is scheduled to complete the apprenticeship program in July 2014, at which time she would move to “journey mechanic” status.

“By no means has the Apprenticeship program been easy, but with the help of my co-workers who have great Mechanic skills, for most have been through the program themselves, I believe WFEC will continue to have a successful maintenance team.  The Apprenticeship program has given me the knowledge and confidence to perform tasks correctly and safely”, reports Nancy Hedrick.

The four year apprenticeship program for power station mechanic involves 8,000 hours of on-the-job learning and an additional 576 hours of class time.  The class portion of the apprenticeship program is provided by a vendor known as Penn Foster, a company with excellent specialized courses for the energy industry. Nancy has a very high “B” average in the classes.  “Formula’s was the hardest class” explained Nancy.  She had to learn all of the algebraic and trigonometry formulas associated with the energy industry.  WFEC is very proud of the apprenticeship program.  According to Allan Ousley, “WFEC is putting out the best power plant mechanics in the area.  We could not be more pleased with our training efforts”.

As the economy picks up a little speed and the demand for his product increases, Craig Freedman said he can't find qualified candidates who are fluent in metallurgy, can operate his computer-run machines and read blueprints.

"The skill shortage is getting more and more acute every day," said the president of Freedman Seating Co., a manufacturer of vehicle seats who is partnering with a local nonprofit to develop an in-house apprenticeship program to train workers.

The manufacturing skills gap is serious in Chicago, Deputy Mayor Steven Koch said Thursday at a round-table discussion highlighting the importance of manufacturing apprenticeships. More than 14,000 help-wanted signs dot Chicago, posted by companies that can't find the right applicants.

Part of the reason, Koch said, is that many companies eliminated their apprenticeship programs during the recession, and now they need help restoring such programs.

On hand at the round table was U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who encouraged manufacturers to apply for $100 million in apprenticeship funding that will be available this fall through the American Apprenticeship Grant.

Perez said President Barack Obama's goal is to double the number of registered apprenticeships from the current 375,000. He said the U.S. is behind countries such as Germany, which has 1.8 million registered apprenticeships.

Perez described manufacturing apprenticeships as part of the "higher-ed superhighway" because they give workers the skills they need to get good-paying jobs. Parents, he said, need to stop thinking that college is the only route to a job that pays middle-income wages.

Guy Loudon, executive director of the Jane Addams Resource Corp., said in a separate interview that apprenticeship programs also help structure career paths. Companies, Loudon said, don't want to guess whether workers are ready to move up and can use apprenticeships to tie pay to employees' performance and knowledge, instead of seniority.

Meanwhile, some companies are left on the sidelines unsuccessfully searching for ideal job candidates.

Pam McDonough, president of the Alliance for Illinois Manufacturing, said many of the group's members are hesitant to hire workers without experience. As a result, they are likely to have positions open for years.

McDonough said she tells them about a program she manages called On the Job Training, which reimburses employers for up to 50 percent of wages for up to six months. The alliance acts as a matchmaker, connecting employers with job applicants.

The alliance has received nearly $2 million since 2011 for the program, which is financed with federal dollars. It keeps about $60,000 per year to manage it.

Some companies are even looking to Europe for help with training.

Anna-Katharina Wittenstein, chairwoman of Germany-based Wittenstein, whose products include precision gears for rockets, race cars and deep-sea diving equipment, said it would be too expensive for the company to have its own apprenticeship program in the U.S.

Wittenstein employs about 80 people at its North American headquarters in Bartlett. There, she said, the company needs machinists who can run, repair and maintain the equipment.

So Wittenstein is part of a group of companies working with the German American Chambers of Commerce to create a German-style training program in the Midwest. Germany, she said, has programs in which workers spend time at a company and school.

Twitter @WriterAlejandra

Cross Posted from the April 10 White House Blog: Written by Sean O'BrienDirector of Speechwriting for the Vice President.

Earlier this week, Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden spoke to 1,500 educational leaders at the American Association of Community Colleges 94th Annual Convention.

During the speech, the Vice President recognized that community colleges provide “a trusted pathway to good jobs in the middle class,” and spoke about the importance of matching job openings with skilled workers. The Vice President highlighted the Administration’s work in making higher education more affordable through further investment in Pell Grants and capping federal student loan repayments at 10% of income.

Dr. Biden, a lifelong educator and community college teacher, noted that she has visited innovative workforce partnerships at community colleges around the country – and that they are critical to America’s future.

Stating that the “very best job training is on-the-job training,” Vice President Biden announced the launch of the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium.

Apprenticeships are some of the strongest and most successful forms of job training with 87 percent of apprentices remaining employed after completing their apprenticeship programs. The Consortium will make it easier for apprentices to receive college credits for their rigorous training that can then be applied to a degree.

Noting that 6 out of 10 jobs in the next 10 years are going to require a degree or a certificate beyond high school, Vice President Biden talked about the need to build partnerships between community colleges and local businesses.

“There are going to be hundreds of thousands of job openings in industries ranging from advanced manufacturing, to health care, to information technology, to energy,” stated the Vice President.

“The middle class has its best shot of growing through all of you,” he said in closing. “You really are the heart of expanding opportunity for millions of Americans.”

For more on recent Apprenticeship news and announcements, be sure to check out Employment and Training Administration (ETA) Deputy Assistant Secretary Eric Seleznow's Department of Labor blog on "Giving Apprentices More Tools to Succeed."


President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden joined together today at the Community College of Allegheny County West Hills Center in western Pennsylvania to announce $600 million in funding to create new opportunities for US workers to access training for 21st century skills that meet the needs of today's businesses.  

The announcement included $100 million in funding in support of the "American Apprenticeship" grants initiative to reward partnerships that help more workers participate in apprenticeships. This competition will help more Americans access this proven path to employment and the middle class.  This effort will focus on partnerships between employers, labor organizations, training providers, community colleges, local and state governments, the workforce system, non-profits and faith-based organizations that: Launch apprenticeship models in new, high-growth fields; Align apprenticeships to pathways for further learning and career advancement; and Scale and replicate apprenticeship models that have proven successful.

For more on the announcement, be sure to read the White House Fact Sheet:  

Also follow coverage of the announcement via the US News & World Report.
Obama, Biden to announce $600 million in grants to spur job training, apprenticeship programs

And for complete details and resources related to the American Apprenticeship Grants initiative, please visit: