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State, businesses work together to build apprentice program

posted on Sunday, November 8, 2015 in  College News

By: Jim Offner, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

WATERLOO—A four-year bachelor’s degree in psychology just wasn’t going to cut it for Ellie Mollenhoff.

She wanted to be a plumber.

“Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, career-wise, and I’ve always been hands-on,” said Mollenhoff, who completed her degree in psychology, with a minor in family services, at the University of Northern Iowa in December 2014. “I always liked psychology and the mental health field, and I knew I’d have to get my master’s and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go into further debt.”

Now, she’s being schooled in a different way, as an apprentice at Young Plumbing & Heating in Waterloo.

She’s not alone. Young Plumbing & Heating currently has nine apprentices.

Apprentices needed

It’s a growing field, and it got a little oomph last week when Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds visited Young, as well as Dalton Plumbing, Heating & Cooling in Waterloo as part of a statewide recognition of National Apprentice Week, which spotlights apprenticeship “as a vital component of talent development strategies in many high demand and high growth sectors in Iowa, the governor said.

The concept of learning on the job isn’t new, particularly in construction and skilled trades. Now, though, the state is promoting a “registered apprenticeship” approach that brings skills testing and classroom instruction into the mix.

The Iowa Apprenticeship Program is administered by the Iowa Economic Development Authority in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship.

Iowa is one of the fastest growing states for registered apprenticeships, state officials say, noting that, in fiscal 2013-14, the state had a more than 20 percent increase in RAs.

Last week, the Technology Association of Iowa launched the Application Developer Registered Apprenticeship Program to train active professionals in programming logic and databases, testing framework, proficiency in creating server side interfaces, knowledge of development methodologies, and understanding of technical writing in a variety of programming languages.

Across the U.S., more than 1,000 occupations -- including healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and transportation – offer apprenticeship programs, said Staci Kramer, Workforce Development Specialist for Construction Trades Apprenticeships with IowaWORKS Cedar Valley, which recently tapped into a $6.175 million grant that expands six of Iowa’s 15 Workforce Investment Act/Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act regions in the construction trades. It now has been expanded to include all 15 WIA/WIOA Regions and to include construction trades, non-construction trades and businesses not previously certified.

An expanding roster

The latter will allow Iowa employers that utilize one or more of the 1,266 federally approved occupations for apprenticeships nationwide to consider the apprenticeship model, Branstad said.

“As Iowa continues to grow its economy, our businesses will continue to need qualified and skilled employees,” he said. “Apprenticeship programs are a great way for employees to earn while they learn – while also getting businesses the access to talent they need.”

Employers have been searching for help in filling needs for skilled workers, so the program will benefit them, Kramer said.

“What we were hearing from employers, most specifically at the beginning of this, approach this grant, what they were hearing from employers in construction trades was work is there, there is a huge skills gap in the workforce and they were not finding the skilled qualified labor to filled these positions, and we’re still hearing that,” she said.

The apprenticeship program, which can fund class work at Hawkeye Community College and other learning centers, can be a boon to workers who have been laid off or otherwise idled, Kramer said.

“The powers that be made an effort, when they were developing this grant, to try to connect those dots to give dislocated workers an opportunity to get out of that cycle of going to work, being laid off, going to work, being laid off, and we were seeing they are coming from a career field that is declining,” she said.

Seasonal workers also can qualify for the program, Kramer noted.

“They’re giving an opportunity for retraining to develop skills in another career; that’s where the idea for writing this grant came from,” she said.

Kramer and several others, including Travis Young, vice president of Young Plumbing & Heating, spoke at an apprenticeship open house Wednesday at Hawkeye Community College.

“Hawkeye has done an excellent job of getting that stated from zero to 55 mph in a short period of time,” Young said, referring to the Waterloo school’s involvement in the classroom component of the apprenticeship program. “It allows us to take individuals that don’t have plumbing or a mechanical background and, in just a few years, they’re ready to be licensed installers, plumbers and mechanics for us.”

The program includes 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and four years of classroom work, Young said.

“It gives them experience that they’re ready to be on their own to take and pass the state test,” he said. “It helps ensure in the future we’re going to have people that can succeed in this industry.”

'More formal' process

It’s a “more formal” process than traditional apprenticeships, Young noted.

“It is more diverse, so students that go through this aren’t just learning one aspect of plumbing or HVAC; they’re using a wide range of skills and learning a diverse skill set,” he said.

All of which is needed today, Young said.

“The systems we install are quite complex, and this training exposes the apprentices to a wide range of skill sets they’re going to need to know in the future,” he said.

Mollenhoff has been an apprentice since June.

She said she’s glad she made the move to the world of plumbing.

“Honestly, I really love it; It’s a great skill. I work with master plumber Mike Oltmann now, who has been with company 25 years. He has a lot of experience.”

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