Environmental Apprenticeship Launches: ‘Green-collar’ program unique for region, state

by Craig Manning

A first-of-its-kind environmental apprenticeship program in northern Michigan means “green-collar” training for local students and young professionals.

The “green-collar” apprenticeship program – offered in partnership between Northwest Michigan Works! and SEEDS EcoCorps – is open to ages 16-24 and will incorporate 2,000 hours of specialized training in a wide range of environmental components.

While SEEDS EcoCorps is billing the program as a landscape management technician apprenticeship, both Evelyn Szpliet, regional director of apprenticeship services for Northwest Michigan Works! and Jennifer Flynn, EcoCorps program director, note that landscaping is just one piece of the puzzle for this unique apprenticeship.

“This (program) is really innovative for our region and the state of Michigan,” Szpliet said. “There’s never been anything like it.”

Leading the new program are Evelyn Szpliet and Jennifer Flynn. Also pictured are Marie Whitney and Bryan Watkins, apprenticeship program coordinators.

Szpliet says while traditional landscaper-type apprenticeships have been around, the new apprenticeship “has all of these green-collar, environmental components that a regular landscape apprenticeship does not have.”

“And this program is focused on the youth, so that is very unique, and on preparing them for their future and careers in this type of industry,” she said.

Flynn adds that while the core goal of the program is to provide apprentices with “a good base of every single aspect of landscape management that they could need,” SEEDS EcoCorps also plans to branch out into skills or knowledge that landscaping training programs often don’t incorporate.

Apprentices will receive paid on-the-job training and related instruction in green construction, reforestation, ecological restoration, plant identification and safe equipment handling – to name a few core competencies – but will also hone their skills in leadership, customer service, maritime services support, land survey technology and more.

The maritime training, provided in collaboration with Traverse City’s Maritime Heritage Alliance, will incorporate “a little bit about sailing, a little bit about how to maintain boats, how to repair boats, and about dock systems and structures,” according to Flynn. The land surveying portion, meanwhile, is part of a partnership with Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) and will include technology training and demonstrations.

The program’s status as an apprenticeship focused specifically on green-collar practices will also render it a bit different from other landscape management programs.

The SEEDS EcoCorps program is “really focused on environmental sustainability,” Flynn says, from “drawing down carbon rather than putting carbon into the atmosphere,” to looking at alternative methods for managing pests.

“I think that distinguishes us from other landscaping training programs,” Flynn explained. “For instance, we’ll do invasive species removal training, but we’re not doing herbicide or pesticide applications. We’re going to recommend things like doing a burn instead of a chemical application.”

While SEEDS EcoCorps and its partners will be in charge of actually delivering the 2,000 hours of training, Northwest Michigan Works! is playing an important role by getting the program funded and ensuring apprentices “graduate” with a nationally recognized credential.

Even beyond SEEDS, Szpliet and her team work to facilitate state and federal grant funding for local apprenticeship programs. When Northwest Michigan Works! sponsors an apprenticeship – which it has done locally for employers in an array of different industries, from healthcare to culinary to viticulture – it is able to do so thanks in large part to two different grants.

The first grant is a “state apprenticeship expansion grant” from the United States Department of Labor, which Szpliet says “helps us provide incentives to employers to help cover the costs of the training,” including wages for apprentices, expenses related to the instructional aspects of the programs, and more.

The second type of grant, also from the Department of Labor, is made possible thanks to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. It covers expenses related to what Szpliet describes as “wraparound services” for an apprenticeship. Those services, she explains, are meant “to help remove barriers” that might keep a potential apprentice from applying for a program, including costs associated with transportation, work uniforms and supplies.

Szpliet and Flynn started brainstorming the program last fall, working together on crafting a plan for on-the-job training, related instruction and required hours. Northwest Michigan Works! then submitted the program to the Department of Labor, which came through with approval in mid-May. Now, both organizations are working to get the word out about the program and to recruit potential applicants.

Flynn is hopeful that the first apprentices will be able to get underway with their training this summer, though it all depends on who applies and when those applications come in. The first cohort of apprentices will be trained “on a rolling basis” as they are accepted to the program, and different apprentices might work at different paces.

For instance, Flynn says apprentices who are also enrolled in high school or college would likely need two years to complete the 2,000 required hours, while those not studying or working other jobs concurrently with the apprenticeship could finish in about a year.

As for the outcomes of the apprenticeship program, both Szpliet and Flynn feel that the broad base of training incorporated into the program could make it a springboard for a variety of potential careers. Completing the apprenticeship nets students registration with the Department of Labor, a national credential, and status as “a journey worker” in the landscape management field, according to Szpliet.

Even without further education or a college degree, Flynn says the credential “will give those interested in public lands work a leg up in the hiring process.” Such work could be done for a municipality (a local parks department, for instance) or for the state or federal government (such as for the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service).

But Flynn is also quick to note that the training apprentices receive could be just as easily applied to the private sector.

“I think it’s great for us to inspire entrepreneurial thinking and entrepreneurial mindsets in the folks that we work with,” Flynn said.

Flynn says that one young man considering the apprenticeship has a side landscaping business and would like training in things related to his field, like chainsaw operations, boat care and dock work.

“For him to be able to further develop his business skills and then go on and grow his own business, that would be fantastic,” said Flynn.

The skills acquired, says Flynn, gives people like that young man some options.

“I think it’s important, with the people that we’re encountering, to inspire them to think creatively about what they can do with their careers,” she said.