Apprenticeship Success: an Employers Perspective

Apprenticeship Success: an Employers Perspective

By: Amy Kuhlers, Program Manager and Network Builder, IASourcelink

Companies that start apprenticeship programs are taking a long view at training for necessary skill sets and are helping to fill much needed jobs in many industries.  To get a better take on the process, we interviewed two companies that have Registered Apprenticeship programs to get their input on launching a program and the opportunities or issues they have experienced.  We went to opposite sides of the state and visited with Rick Farrell of Farrell’s Heating and Air Conditioning in Sioux City, and Steve Gilbert with Gilbert Home Comfort in Leon for their insight on apprenticeship programs.

How did you learn about the registered apprenticeship program?

(Rick) “”Jim Bergenske from Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) approached me to see if there was an interest in enrolling apprentices at WITCC. At the time, I was an instructor for an apprenticeship program through Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Iowa out of Des Moines and had been teaching classes in Western Iowa for ABC for 9 years, in which my apprentices were enrolled. However, at the time Jim approached me, ABC was ending its Western Iowa program, which meant we needed to find an additional venue for apprentice training so the timing was perfect.””

(Steve) “”In 2012 we were aware of the looming labor shortage in the middle skill trades, specifically the licensed trades, and realized that we needed to control our own destiny and become proactive if we were going to have a chance to build a sustainable organization in rural Iowa.  Through online research we were able to find help and answers to our questions from the Dept. of Labor Office of Apprenticeship (DOL/OA) in Des Moines.  Greer Sisson and Richard Madden were incredible and walked us through the process and gave us confidence to continue the journey.””

Please tell me more about your program in general. For example, is it a two or four-year program?  Do the apprentices work during the day and have classes at night? 

(Rick) “”Ours is a 4-year program with a requirement of a sponsor (usually the employer of the apprentice), and they must also log 2,200 hours per year for four years of on-the-job training. After passing the 4-year program with at least a 75% grade, and having logged the required hours, apprentices are then eligible to take a Journeyman’s test. Our classes were two nights a week from October to May and must add up to 144 hours a year. We currently use Western Iowa Tech Community College for all our required training for apprentices.    After passing the Journeyman’s test, apprentices are required by the state to log continuing education classes – determined by the discipline they hold the license in.””

(Steve) “”Our RA is a 4-year program that requires the apprentice to log 2,000 hours per year of on the job learning or OJL and take approximately 144 hours of class per year which is up to 26 annual online exams, homework, and books pertaining to each course.  Penn Foster is our training provider.  Upon successful completion of the exams and OJL the apprentice moves to the next year of coursework and is issued another Apprenctice ID card from the State of Iowa.  During this process, the Apprentice is also earning increases in wages that meet or exceed established standards set forth by the DOL.  It is a learn-at-your-own pace model that fits wonderfully into our seasonal business cycles allowing for ample time for the apprentice to thoroughly complete all work.””

How has the program been a fit for your business?

(Rick) “”The fact that the other state certified courses are all in the central part of the state, or the eastern part, made it difficult to enroll new employees without a class to go to. WITCC made it easy to get apprentices enrolled. When Jim at WITCC approached us and offered a DOL/OA certified program (the very same one I had been teaching through ABC the fit and timing was perfect.””

(Steve) “”The program has been an absolute perfect fit for our business.  It has enhanced our business brand and image in the communities we serve as the “go to” place for a career and not just a job.  We now get weekly inquiries regarding apprenticeship openings from great young people looking to better their lives.””

What was the process for setting up your program with the Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship?

(Rick) “”We had a difficult change over, but only because we had students in 1st and 2nd year classes who were changing their training facility and the DOL/OA only gives one number to each sponsor or employer and only one training facility gets that number, so switching was tough, but ABC, WITCC, and the DOL/OA all worked to get it done. Any other situation was probably easy. I think we were the first to change mid-stream, so it was tougher.””

(Steve) “”I remember vividly how helpful the US DOL/OA staff in Des Moines was in laying out the process and guiding us through to completion.  Also, our curriculum provider Penn Foster (Rick Bruno) were invaluable to us as well.  They are definitely experts in aiding companies wanting to start a Registered Apprenticeship Program.””

How many apprentices have you had since your program started?  Have they stayed with your company and/or moved up to a leadership position?

(Rick) “”We have had 16 Apprentices go through the program and three are currently in management positions, while nine are still working on their Masters time (5 years as a Journeyman).  An additional four have left the company to start their own companies.””

(Steve) “”We have had 10 apprentices over the last three years of our program.  Of those 10, 7 are still with us and we are adding more.  We are expecting our first ‘grad’ in 2018 and three the following year.  These are exciting times around our business.””

Rick, WITCC is lead sponsor for your program.  What are the benefits of working with a sponsor opposed to sponsoring your own program?

(Rick) “”There are lots of benefits with Western Iowa Tech handling our training. We have been burdened with tons of paperwork, logging of hours, cost of continuing education, and documentation with the DOL/OA, and the licensing requirements. Having WITCC do the training and documentation for our apprentices removes some of that burden and office expense. They keep us informed on our apprentice’s attendance and semester grades, along with updates of the program. We see a real value in that.””

Why would you recommend other companies look at starting an apprenticeship program?

(Rick) I know that some companies across the state have started in-house training with a certification from the state. That is probably a good fit for large companies with a large turnover. We don’t have that many apprentices coming into the business each year so for the smaller turnover and smaller company, outside training is less of an expense and we have less time involved in administering all the necessary things for apprentices and our Journeyman and Master mechanics.

(Steve) If you are a small business owner that wants to influence your own destiny in terms of growth, succession planning, improving company culture, or to simply start moving into an investor role or management position within your own company then 100% yes.

Anything else you’d like to comment on?

(Rick) “”Training your new people, and your existing work force, is a necessity as our industry becomes more and more complicated and regulated. The state program still has a lot of issues with enforcement, but we can hope that the DOL/OA is working on making these requirements the same for all of the people involved in our industries. Free enterprise needs to be played on a level field.””

(Steve) “”Looking back now, starting our RA was the single best and biggest thing we have done at Gilbert Home Comfort in our 35 years of business. On the outside looking in, the process can look intimidating and onerous but when you invest some time researching and talking with folks who are there to help it becomes clear that is not and it is well worth the investment.  It has made us a better organization in terms of strength, culture, structure, and sustainability.””

Rick Farrell Jr., President, Farrell’s Heating and Air Conditioning

Steve Gilbert, President, Gilbert Home Comfort


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