Apprenticeships in the trades: Off the treadmill and onto the track

When he started as a freshman at Hodgson Vocational Technical High School in Glasgow, Dietrich Yontz planned to work on cars. That changed the first time he wired up a light switch.

“For whatever reason, everything in that shop made sense and was easy to me,” he says. During the summer before his senior year, Yontz started working at Nickle Electrical Cos. as a part of his school’s co-operative employment program.

Dietrich Yontz, 19, is an apprentice at Nickle Electrical. | Photo by Eric Crossan

At first, it was intimidating. “I’m a 16-year-old kid walking onto a job site full of 40-year-old grown men who
do this stuff every day,” he said.

Now at age 19, Yontz is just over halfway through a four-year apprenticeship at Nickle. He works full time while attending classes for three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Even though he’s an apprentice, he says he feels respected by the company and his co-workers for his ability to work hard and willingness to learn.

Apprenticeships like his are increasingly being seen as an alternative to college.

“We’ve had a generation of our core message being that you have to go to college or what you offer is not as valuable,” said Bryon Short, executive vice president of the Delaware Contractors Association. “That has been hurtful to our community.”

This college-focused culture also leads many young people to spend their time in a classroom only to seek a change later on. John Hagelstein, who trains union electrician apprentices, estimates that 40% of them have taken at least some college courses but decided it wasn’t for them.

People in the trades say they’ve seen encouraging signs, but apprenticeship is still often not seen as an equal alternative to college.

“A lot of [high] schools still push college heavily and look down on the trades as a lesser-than occupation,” said Kyle Maguire, apprenticeship and training manager for the Delaware Department of Labor. “Parents feel they really have to push their kids through college,” he said.

The state of Delaware has long operated a registered apprenticeship program.

To qualify, a person has to already have a job with a participating company. That means a would-be apprentice has to either find a job with one of the 350 companies that work with the state or persuade their employer to sign on.

There are now about 1,400 apprentices in the state program. There are no wage requirements for beginning apprentices, though businesses must increase wages as the worker gains more experience. By the end of the program, the apprentice must earn 85% of the journeyman wage.

In the state program, the median wage of entry-level apprentices is $14.09 an hour and the median journey-level wage is $21 an hour. The length of apprentices in this program varies from one to five years.

The state of apprenticeships

The importance of the apprentice program has only risen as the unemployment rate dropped.

“There hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on apprenticeship until we were face-to-face with the workforce crisis,” said Short, the contractor’s association vice president. “With the aging of workers in construction, apprenticeship has taken on a real urgency.”

The state program is seen as a way to replace many of the trades’ older, experienced workers. It pays for a student’s classroom training, and there is no cost to enroll for either the apprentice or the employer.

Diversifying the apprenticeship program is a key goal of the state program. Five percent of the apprentices are women and 20% are minorities. To that end, the state has funded two pilot pre-apprenticeship programs to reach high school students early on.

“There are a lot of barriers to employment, so pre-apprenticeships include soft skills as well,” said Maguire. Those barriers include a criminal record or the lack of a high school diploma. A pre-apprenticeship can help a would-be apprentice get their record expunged or get a GED.

“Diversification takes time,” says Rachel Turney, the department’s employment and training administrator, “so we’re trying to build a pipeline of people who can qualify.”

Many students gain exposure to the trades at Delaware’s vocational public high schools, which offer co-op employment. This means students can combine their classroom education with part-time paid work during the school year.

Nickle Electrical Co., the Newark-based electrical contractor, has long introduced high- schoolers to the trade through the co-op program, said Heather Shupe, the company’s human resources director. Nickle has participated in the state apprenticeship program for 25 years, and most of their employees, and the owner, have come up as apprentices.

She says interest at the high school level is growing as parents and educators realize college isn’t the
only path to success. The high price of college has helped open eyes to the trades, too.

“This career path is amazing, and they can do very well for themselves,” she says. Young women recruited into the program, she adds, have been “blowing the guys away.”

Unions take a different role in the state’s apprenticeship program. 

For example, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 313 works with the National Electrical Contractors Association to recruit and select qualified apprentices for the union’s apprenticeship program, said Hagelstein, the training director representing the joint committee.

To become a union apprentice, a person applies, takes a reading and math test, is interviewed and is put
on a ranked list. The joint committee of unions and businesses meets monthly to select apprentices based on the employers’ openings. 

Their pay is set by a collectively bargained agreement, and first-year apprentices earn 40% of a journeyman electrician’s wage. As of now, that’s $16.30 an hour with full benefits, including pensions and health insurance. Every six months, their pay rises by 5% and by the end of their five-year apprenticeship they earn the full rate, now at $40.75 an hour.

The electrician’s union is currently training 120 apprentices. When asked who makes a good electrician apprentice, Hagelstein mentioned three traits: a good work ethic, mechanical aptitude and a willingness to spend time learning the craft.

Most of these apprentices will be replacing retiring electricians rather than filling new openings. The Delaware Department of Labor projects a 0.5% average annual growth rate among electricians through 2026, a rate of 10 jobs a year. But it projects 250 average openings a year to replace existing workers.

Though they try to recruit women, they get few female applicants, Hagelstein said.“But it is a career that anyone can do,” he says.

Beyond the trades

While apprenticeships have long been a natural fit with the construction trades, they can also work in other industries. Working with the Delaware Restaurant Association, the labor department in May started a pilot apprenticeship program for cooks. 

Among the first employers to sign on was SoDel Concepts, a Rehoboth Beach-based company that operates 11 restaurants from Lewes to Fenwick Island.

Ronnie Burkle, corporate chef at SoDel, said the company has had trouble finding trained chefs, and the program meshed with the company’s culture of training from within.

“We’re big on turning dishwashers into chefs,” he says.

The program’s first eight apprentices spend about 2,000 hours a year — essentially 40 hours a week — in the restaurant and three hours a week in a classroom. As the apprentice moves through the two-year program, they earn some of the same certifications as they would in culinary school. 

There are no wage requirements either (beyond minimum wage) but the apprentices get raises as they complete certifications.

The state is also working on creating a two-year automotive technician apprenticeship.

Not every employer is a good fit with the on-the-job training model used by the state’s registered apprenticeship program. The state has had talks with insurers and chemical manufacturers about possible apprenticeship programs, but they didn’t pan out. 

An apprenticeship is essentially an exchange: An employer gets cheaper labor and an employee gets job training. In some cases, apprentices have claimed the balance has swung too far in the other direction.

As for Yontz, the 19-year-old electrician’s apprentice at Nickle, he’s looking forward to graduating from apprenticeship partly for the pay, yes, but also for something less tangible.

“I want to be trusted to do my own work. I look forward to not being looked at as an apprentice.” 

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