Participation in a state-sponsored apprenticeship program developed in the early 1940s is skyrocketing as Maine employers are desperately seeking out new ways to attract and retain workers.

With most Maine employers citing a lack of qualified job applicants as their No. 1 problem, the number taking advantage of the state Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship Program has increased by 40 percent over the past two years, and pending applications would increase participation by an additional 50 percent. That explosive growth has led to concerns that the program may become overwhelmed, along with calls for an increase in funding.

Employers in the program receive partial reimbursement for training expenses and assistance with setting up and carrying out required educational components. Apprentices are compensated by employers as full-time workers and receive nationally recognized certifications upon completion of their training.

Organizations participating in the program say it offers a faster and more cost-effective alternative to traditional college education while giving inexperienced workers a chance to prove themselves in an actual workplace setting. One current apprentice in Maine said that even with a college education, many recent graduates are finding that employers expect them to already have on-the-job experience – a dilemma that apprenticeships can help solve.

The official responsible for overseeing the state apprenticeship program said 95 percent of those who complete apprenticeships in Maine go on to continue working for the sponsoring employer.

“It’s important to note that an apprentice is a full-time worker,” said Joan Dolan, director of apprenticeship and strategic partnerships for the Maine Department of Labor. “It’s somebody that is working and being mentored on the job by a mentor to make sure that the hands-on skills needed to fulfill that occupation are being done correctly and safely.”

Roughly 115 Maine employers are participating in the program, with a total of about 750 apprentices currently receiving training, Dolan said. Another 60 employers have applied for the program recently but have yet to be approved. That’s an “exponential” increase over a few years ago, she said.

One interesting aspect of the recent growth in participation is that more white-collar professions such as information technology and health care are recognizing the value of apprenticeship, Dolan said. In the past, apprenticeships were largely the domain of blue-collar professions including construction, shipbuilding, plumbing and electrical work.

WordLab in Portland is providing hands-on experience for seven apprentices this year. A state program that creates and helps finance apprenticeships has rapidly growing participation as Maine companies grapple with an enduring labor crunch. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dolan said the state has the authority to create a registered apprenticeship program for nearly any profession using federal training standards as a guide.

“We created (a program for) an ocularist here in Maine, which is a glass eyeball maker,” she said.

TESTING THE PR WATERS

Portland entrepreneur Linda Varrell was worried about the long-term viability of her chosen profession, public relations, and the state’s shrinking workforce. In February, she decided to turn that fear into an opportunity.

WordLab founder and President Linda Varrell works with apprentice Katherine Hulit at WordLab in Portland. WordLab now employs seven apprentices, who sign up for a full year of training.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Using the state apprenticeship program as a foundation, Varrell launched a for-profit startup venture called WordLab that is staffed almost entirely by apprentices in the public relations field. WordLab is a fully functioning agency that performs real work for paying clients, with all the work done by apprentices under the mentorship of Varrell, president and CEO of Broadreach Public Relations, and Wayne Clark, a former communications executive at Maine Medical Center.

Varrell believes WordLab is the first business of its kind in the United States. The startup currently employs seven apprentices, most of whom are recent college graduates seeking careers in communications. Apprentices at WordLab sign up for a full year of training, with a new group coming on every six months to learn from the previous group.

“The white-collar world has been slow to adopt the idea of an apprenticeship model,” Varrell said. And yet, “communications is one of those areas where you only get better by doing.”

WordLab apprentices Sacha Kiesman and Brian Lee said the startup is trying to solve a common problem for young people trying to break into the communications field. Even with a college degree, many are finding it difficult to launch their careers, they said.

“It’s a challenge because even entry-level jobs require a couple years of experience,” Kiesman said. “It’s a Catch-22.”

Clark describes the venture as an experiment to see if a dedicated apprenticeship business can supply fresh talent to an entire industry, as opposed to the traditional model in which individual companies groom their own potential new hires. He and Varrell even have plans to license their curriculum to other like-minded entrepreneurs if the model proves successful.

“A lot of companies are already doing it for themselves,” Clark said. “We’re kind of doing it for everybody.”

Former Maine gubernatorial candidate Terry Hayes, now director of workforce development for trade organization HospitalityMaine, also has a plan to help the industry she represents attract and groom new talent. Hayes said apprenticeship is a way for inexperienced workers to launch their careers in the hotel and restaurant industries without spending the time and money required to attend college.

“You don’t really need to go to college to at least get your foot in the door,” she said. “With apprenticeship, you get paid. As your skills increase, you get paid.”

Employers pay interns a starting salary, then offer periodic raises based on performance. The goal is to have the apprentice earning up to 90 percent of the company’s starting salary by the end of the year-long apprenticeship.

HospitalityMaine recently hosted Maine’s first apprenticeship conference along with the Labor Department and the Maine Community College System. The conference was attended by roughly 80 employers, educators and members of government and nonprofit agencies, who gathered to discuss ways to strengthen and promote the state’s registered apprenticeship program.

Hayes believes a resurgence of participation in the state program will help Maine’s hospitality industry and many others overcome the challenge of attracting and retaining young talent.

“There are over 1,000 professions that are apprenticeable through the Department of Labor,” she said.

FUNDING STRETCHED THIN

For Gardiner-based waterworks equipment supplier Everett J. Prescott Inc., apprenticeships have been a vital part of workforce development for many years, said Mike Brown, the company’s director of human resources.

Program director Wayne Clark works on his computer at WordLab in Portland on Thursday. He describes WordLab’s venture as an experiment to see if a dedicated apprenticeship business can supply new talent to an entire industry. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Prescott, which has 300 employees across several states, has put about 50 workers through its two-year apprenticeship program over a 12-year period, he said, about two-thirds of whom went on to become full-time employees.

“There is no post-secondary school that teaches what we need our employees to know,” Brown said.

While he understands the growing appeal of apprenticeships in a state where young workers can be hard to find, Brown said he is concerned that the Labor Department is becoming overwhelmed with all of the increased interest. The program’s limited funding for training reimbursement has been stretched ever thinner, he said, with the department recently announcing that as of Sept. 1, it will reduce the maximum reimbursement to employers per apprentice from $1,200 per fiscal year to just $500.

“It might (be a deterrent) for some employers,” Brown said. “It certainly won’t be for us.”

The apprenticeship program is one of the best investments a company can make, he said, and is a more efficient use of government funds than other workforce development programs. Brown hopes to see funding increased for the state apprenticeship program to keep it running smoothly.

Other major users of Maine’s apprenticeship program include general contractor Cianbro, shipbuilder Bath Iron Works, waste management firm Casella, and health care providers MaineGeneral Health and Northern Light Health, according to the Labor Department.

The state program requires apprentices to train for at least a full year, working at least 2,000 hours on the job and attending at least 140 hours of formal classroom instruction. The employers pay at least minimum wage, with many offering above that to entice recruits.

The Maine Community College System has been instrumental in helping many employers meet the classroom requirement, either by developing custom curricula or placing apprentices into the appropriate existing classes.

Dan Belyea, the college system’s executive director of workforce training, said he has seen a significant increase in employer requests to develop instructional programs for apprenticeships. It’s a big investment on the part of employers, he said, but it’s one that pays off in the form of long-term employment.

“We’ve got a workforce shortage facing us,” Belyea said. “The biggest thing we hear about is the need to find qualified workers. … This is another avenue to recruit a new employee.”

This story was updated at 10 a.m. Aug. 24 to clarify the salary payment goals of the apprenticeship program.


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