University Training in the Skilled Trades

With a wave of retirements expected, institutions find that they must provide a new kind of education to keep up with their own demand for electricians and HVAC mechanics.
November 9, 2007

West Virginia University’s first class of eight students started a four-year course of study in July, their program designed to match education and training to critical work force needs -- albeit, in this case, the needs of the university itself.

“We were just having a difficult time finding skilled trade employees to hire and the ones we did hire had a high turnover early on, because the market here in Morgantown is very competitive right now,” Randy Hudak, director of facilities management at West Virginia, says of the rationale behind the new apprenticeship program. “Our average age in the skilled trades is probably in the mid-40s to upper-40s, so again we’re starting to think about that 10-year window of retirements.”

As colleges face stiffer competition for recruiting and retaining employees in the skilled trades -- including carpenters, electricians, heating, ventilation and air conditioning mechanics, and plumbers -- and a bubble of retirements looms on the horizon, those involved with apprenticeship programs anticipate growing interest in the model.

“Absolutely, I think people are going to have to start looking for innovative ways to fill these positions,” says Mark Petty, assistant vice chancellor for plant operations at Vanderbilt University, which has had a program in place for about 20 years and currently has one plumber in training. “There are a couple of ways you can do it. You can contract it out; you can grow your own – which is what we decided to do.”

“We went through a phase when it was just easier to hire a journeyman, a craftsman, so there was no five-year waiting period for someone to be fully capable of doing a job. You could hire them immediately," Petty says. But, he adds, apprentices "learn on our systems....Even if you hired a journeyman electrician off the street, I would say that before they become 100 percent fully effective, you’re talking about 18 months to 3 years.”

At West Virginia, the eight original apprentices were selected, after interviews and a series of tests (reading, writing and, depending on the position sought, mechanical or electrical aptitude exams), from an applicant pool of 80. Recruited both internally and externally (in the end, two of the eight were hired from within the university, Hudak says), they signed a contract committing to the four-year program and to work at West Virginia for at least two years beyond that or otherwise repay their educational expenses. The apprenticeship program pairs each apprentice with a mentor, and includes 1,600 hours of on-the-job training per-year and 145 annual hours of classroom training (to be conducted through a combination of classes at a local technical college, distance education and instruction from West Virginia staff).

Successful apprentices – who are full-time employees and eligible for benefits from the very beginning -- will rise five pay grades in their four years in the program, and assuming they pass state or in some cases institutional tests, will graduate with a guaranteed position at West Virginia.

In creating the program, West Virginia officials consulted with the University of Virginia, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary for its apprenticeship program in July. “Our very first class had 22 students. In that class, there were 16 who graduated and 14 of them still work in facilities management,” says Rebecca Leinen, human resources and training director for facilities management at Virginia (and the apprentice program manager).

“I think that’s a very strong testimony to the things that can come out of an apprentice program, which includes people who are going to be loyal to an organization that helped train them and gave them their start.”

While it’s difficult to get a sense of just how many university-based apprenticeship programs in the skilled trades exist, it’s safe to say that formal, robust programs are not the norm. Todd Cook, apprenticeship representative for the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry Division of Registered Apprenticeship, for instance, counts four colleges in Virginia with registered programs, including one university with a program under development. “It’s not that they haven’t tried it," says Leinen, who recently fielded questions on Virginia's program from local facilities managers, "but a lot of them felt that they tried it and failed. So I think that as it continues to become more and more difficult to find skilled tradespeople, they go back to this concept and say, ‘How can we make this work for us?’ Maybe they just could never get the management support behind it in prior years.”

“It’s something that you really do have to have a lot of energy behind. It has to almost be part of the belief system of the group, of the facilities group – that this will work and that it does provide you with good and qualified tradespeople when you’re all done,” Leinen says.

Also, JoAnn Navarro, director of operations at the State University of New York at Binghamton, points out that one of the goals of apprenticeship programs it is to increase the number of underrepresented groups in the (historically male-dominated) trades.

Binghamton offers a very different model than West Virginia or Virginia. Designed to provide opportunities for internal employees only (Virginia and West Virginia both recruit from within and without), with custodial staff comprising many of the participants, Binghamton’s program is short-term. The university selects 10 to 20 participants each year to learn a trade during the summer months – primarily painting, but also masonry, electrical work, plumbing and refrigeration. Half-time employees are bumped up to full-time status for the summer and spend half of their time learning the trade and half completing their regular duties. In the fall, they return to their regular positions, though they are encouraged to participate again the following summer. There’s no guarantee of a job offer, and of the approximately 75 participants since the program started in 2002, only three have been promoted into positions in the trades. Job openings are fairly infrequent, Navarro explains, and union rules and regulations can dictate who gets promoted.

“One of our goals for the program was to give the [Civil Service Employees Association] employees experience. In the past there may have been a cleaner who applied for a job as a painter but didn’t have any painting experience," Navarro says. “The whole idea really is to give people a whole new set of skills and abilities so when a position does become available, they can be ready to take an entry-level position.”

The University of Michigan also has a short-term "apprenticeship lite" Employees Working out of Classification (EWOC) program that often serves as a first step for employees angling for spots in the four-and-a-half to five-year full-fledged skilled trades apprenticeship program, says Tom Sullivan, the training and apprenticeship coordinator in facilities maintenance at Michigan.

With the apprenticeship program open to internal employees only, "Ideally someone might move from a custodian to an EWOC to a maintenance or mechanic position...and then from that group, a lot of our successful candidates come," says Sullivan, who explains that the 8,000-hour apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with classwork provided through Washtenaw Community College and the local trade unions. The university currently has 21 apprentices in the program, which is at least 15 years old, and apprentices who complete the program and pass any relevant licensing exams are guaranteed jobs as journeypersons.

With 100 applicants for three to four spots per year, competition is stiff: Increasingly, employees interested in the program are undertaking coursework on their own (like a certificate program in welding, for instance) to enhance their odds. "I had one candidate tell us, 'I'm going to be a plumber with or without you,'" Sullivan says. "She backed it up, going to classes, and eventually was hired as an apprentice."

Andy Brantley, chief executive officer of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, says that apprenticeship programs that guarantee advancement to successful apprentices tend to be “much more advantageous” in that they demonstrate “the value of that person to the organization overall" in addition to offering skills development opportunities.

“In my opinion, this is an area where higher education institutions should be spending more time and effort,” Brantley says, relative to the need to create clear opportunities for staff development and advancement. “Since we typically cannot compete with private industry [salary-wise] for many of our positions, one of the things that we really need to spend a lot of time on are more of those intangibles of working in higher education.”


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