An HR Recruiting Tool of the Future in Action Today: Apprenticeships

“Advocate for Apprenticeship” - Nurse apprentice standing in front of building

With U.S. unemployment at historic lows and soaring costs of a 4-year college degree turning many college students and young people off, how can employers find and develop the qualified employees they need?  One option is to explore setting up an apprenticeship program with a local community college. 

In many industry sectors, trade union membership has offered the traditional pipeline for any new trainees or apprentices a business may require. This is particularly true of the trades like electricians, plumbers, steamfitters/welders and carpenters.  Businesses in non-construction sectors have often partnered with local community colleges to set up the technical courses and curriculum choices needed to develop specific skills in conjunction with on-the-job training.

But what happens when community colleges themselves take the initiative to set up an apprenticeship program?  Nothing amazing happens overnight, but promising strides can be made toward building new pathways to successful careers for both current college students and young people, while at the same time generating a supply of qualified employees for businesses.  We recently interviewed two Seattle area leaders to get their perspectives on apprenticeships.

Darren Linker is the Director of the Occupational Safety and Health program for Edmonds Community College and Pierce College.  He recently spoke with reps from the Washington State Centers of Excellence about Edmonds’ very new Certified Safety Specialist (CSS) apprenticeship program sponsored by Intuitive Safety Solutions and made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. His focus area of Occupational Safety & Health is connected to the Homeland Security Emergency Management Center of Excellence.

Meanwhile, Jason Barnwell, VP and Senior Superintendent for Sellen Construction, discussed his more extensive experience with apprenticeships from an employer’s standpoint.  He emphasized the importance of making sure K-12 educators understand the range of dynamic career opportunities available to students not seeking a 4-year degree, as long as they get good training and mentorship.

Mr. Linker described the launch in late 2017 of a Certified Safety Specialist Apprenticeship based at Edmonds College in Lynnwood, WA.  It’s designed to educate and train professionals to work in any industry with workplace health and safety hazards or compliance issues and is the first apprenticeship program of its kind in the country. After a lengthy development phase working in conjunction with sponsor Intuitive Safety Solutions, the CSS apprenticeship has placed three apprentices, with the first one now halfway through the program and doing well, and the second having just started in April 2019, and the third in May 2019.

“A career in the trades can be a primary desirable option, rather than a backup plan, for many young people.” - Jason Barnwell, Sellen Construction

Linker noted that the model Edmonds used to develop its apprenticeship program is sort of “backwards” in the sense that it had already developed the academic courses and curriculum to instruct safety professionals, whereas traditionally employers have approached colleges to design curricula to supplement their on-the-job training.  With no trade or professional organization to provide overall guidance or support on setting up an apprenticeship program, they had to build systems such as an Apprenticeship Committee to oversee the program.  They also relied on apprenticeship consultants from both the WA State Department of Labor & Industries and from Seattle Community College that came along with the federal grant.

Intuitive Safety Solutions, the CSS Apprenticeship program sponsor, is a placement agency for health and safety professionals.  As the apprenticeship sponsor, it’s responsible for recruiting employers as training agents for the program and providing administrative oversight of the apprentices as they progress through the apprenticeship program. The American Society of Safety Professionals may be suited to hosting conferences, for example, but not for the role of supervising apprenticeship programs.

Linker explained that even businesses with multiple work sites might have only one position in the company for a specialist in occupational safety and health, but that qualified experts are in demand by all companies in many diverse industry sectors.  He observed that in the past, safety specialists typically came from other backgrounds and got drafted by their employers into taking on responsibility for compliance with state L&I and federal OSHA safety regulations, learning on the job with no specific training or education.  He says that in the past 10 years or so the health and safety profession has come to be recognized as a distinct professional career path in its own right.

Apprentices in the Edmonds’s Certified Safety Specialist program do not follow a linear curriculum, but may take specific courses earlier on or later in the program depending on when they are offered, but everything is covered and all the information links together eventually.

Edmonds College has put out this white paper on key steps for Starting A Non-Traditional Apprenticeship.  For his own program, Linker described the lack of economies scale as the biggest challenge. Whether you have two apprentices or 200, you still need much of the same administrative infrastructure with overhead costs.  Since grant money only provides temporary funding to develop the program, the apprenticeship must develop a sustainable financial model for its apprenticeship program.

For Sellen Construction, its more traditional apprenticeship program includes recruiting outreach to community colleges but no formal co-ordination of academic curricula with on-the-job training.  Mr. Barnwell said his company takes pride in its skilled workforce and gave a shout out to the Construction Center of Excellence for their support of mentorship and continuing education of employees, which results in long term retention rates.

Barnwell described how accomplished journeymen deliver course work and more intentional engagement with their apprentices, with a new emphasis on developing their “soft skills” around human collaboration, along with the technical training.

“Apprenticeship teaches soft skills like collaboration and communication that may not be directly addressed in the classroom” - two construction workers collaborating on a job site

Sellen Construction is focused on gaining access to new talent pools including “first generation” industry apprentices that help it diversify and better reflect the communities they work in.  For example, it participates in the Regional Pre-Apprenticeship Collaborative (RPAC) that brings together apprenticeship programs, employers and educators to share best practices on the development of curricula and support structures needed for young people in underrepresented communities to be successful.

Mr. Barnwell concluded by saying how important it is for K-12 educators and parents to understand that a career in the trades can be a primary desirable option, rather than a backup plan, for many young people, and that 4-year degrees are not the only path to success.  Advocates in the business, education and political worlds are needed, because when adult stakeholders fully appreciate all the exciting career opportunities available, they’re better able to direct their high school students toward the best community colleges, employers and apprenticeship programs.

Helpful resources

Certified Safety Specialist Apprenticeship – Intuitive Safety Solutions

White Paper: Starting a Non-Traditional Apprenticeship Program, Edmonds College, 2018

Washington State Department of Labor & Industries Apprenticeship Section

Ricardo Ibarra