Increased Focus on Apprenticeships Good for Workforce

Graphic designer. Baker. Firefighter. Customer service representative.

They may not be occupations that readily come to mind as candidates for apprenticeships, but they’re among a myriad of possibilities that Evelyn Szpliet, the Northwest Michigan Works! new point person on apprenticeships, is happy to help employers consider.

Szpliet is reaching out to employers, educational providers and the public, across all industries and throughout the workforce development agency’s 10-county region, as part of a stepped-up focus on U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)-registered apprenticeships as a conduit to skilled workers that employers need.

“This opportunity offers employers in every industry the tool to develop a highly-skilled workforce, to help their businesses grow,” said Szpliet, who started in January in her new position as apprenticeship success coordinator. “The apprenticeship plans are completely employer-driven, and customizable to their needs.”

Increased attention and emphasis on apprenticeships springs both locally and from Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, where Michigan Talent Investment Agency (TIA) Director Wanda Stokes in January initiated apprenticeship success coordinators for the state’s 16 Michigan Works! agencies – staff positions supported by federally funded grants through TIA and aimed at providing subject matter experts who are resources to employers on apprenticeship programs.

“The vision…is that it will really help drive not only to employers but to job seekers, it will really drive down the message that there are a number of opportunities when it comes to apprenticeships, and it’s a career path you want to take a look at,” Stokes said.

The apprenticeship coordinators join other state areas of registered apprenticeship support. For example, through one initiative known as the Skilled Trades Training Fund, employers have been able to apply for $3,000 apprenticeship grants to offset training costs. And new this year is the rollout of a $2.5 million federal grant Michigan received to cultivate new registered apprenticeship programs throughout the state – an initiative through which Northwest Michigan Works! received $106,000 that it is putting toward a new program aimed at the region’s ever-building craft beverage industry.

Said Stokes: “When we have employers, and we have jobseekers that are brought together along with our educational community, then there’s all kinds of possibilities that we see come out of those partnerships.”

With the new apprenticeship coordinators, responsibilities include: fostering and establishing sustainable registered apprenticeship programs; helping employers and industry-led collaboratives to expand and start apprenticeship programs and work together to create a pipeline of skilled workers; increasing the diversity of workers in registered apprenticeship programs; and assisting in a broad approach to address multiple employment and training needs for apprentices and sponsors.

Szpliet has been on the road meeting with employers, career tech centers, organizations and others, outlining the role that Northwest Michigan Works! can play and employee training opportunities – including more than 1,000 apprenticeable occupations recognized by the DOL.

There’s a misconception that registered apprenticeships are limited to certain trades, Szpliet said. “It’s open, to a lot of different positions and job titles.”

DOL registered apprenticeships combine both on-the-job and outside training, the latter of which come through entities like community colleges, trade schools, universities, industry organizations, online providers, or a mix of sources, all as approved by the DOL, said Terry Vandercook, director of operations at Northwest Michigan Works!

“We will work with the employer to determine the technical skills needed (and) the technical education…and certain hours of competency-based training at the workplace,” Vandercook said. The agency will submit the apprenticeship application to the DOL and once it’s approved, will if needed connect employers to potential candidates for apprentices. Employers can also identify their own apprentice candidates, including from current employees or job seekers, and handle their own reporting to the DOL, if they choose.

At Benzie County’s St. Ambrose Cellars, which produces meads and wines, the agency worked with St. Ambrose and its then-departing winemaker to develop and structure a winemaker apprenticeship. The apprenticeship has included online classes delivered through the Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance, a national grape and wine education program; field work with grape growers and with beekeeping employees at sister company Sleeping Bear Farms, whose bees supply honey for mead; and experiences and training throughout the operation, from tasting room to cellar.

The apprenticeship encompasses 4,000 hours of on-the-job training and is a two-year program that two employees are slated to complete by the end of the year, said Susan Kile, chief financial officer for Sleeping Bear Apiaries, the parent company of St. Ambrose and Sleeping Bear Farms.

She said Northwest Michigan Works! also prepared initial contracts for the apprentices and has helped with all needed documentation, including ongoing required reporting to the DOL.

The workforce agency’s role is like having such assistance in-house, Kile said. “Having the person out there that says: ‘You want to do this, we’re doing to help you with it,’ is absolutely important.”

While the St. Ambrose winemaker apprenticeship was the first of its kind developed by Northwest Michigan Works!, others are in the making through the new craft beverage industry apprenticeship program.

The craft beverage program could reach a broad range of employers, including producers of beer, wine, mead, cider, distilled liquor, juice and soda, and coffee roasters. Northwest Michigan Works! envisions offering employers incentives of up to $3,000 per apprentice, which could be used to pay for classes or outside training in a variety of paid apprentice positions.

The funds are coming out of the $106,000 grant the agency received.

“With this grant, we can help anyone in the craft beverage industry, and any value-add occupation they might have,” said Jennifer Hains, Northwest Michigan Works! blended training coordinator and the lead on the craft beverage program. “There’s a lot of interest.”

Among those exploring opportunities is Traverse City’s Higher Grounds Coffee. Jennifer Yeatts, director of coffee at Higher Grounds Trading Co., said funding that can help the company take greater advantage of outside training programs – like those offered through the global Specialty Coffee Association – benefits both employees and business.

“We’re always looking for ways to expand professional development opportunities for staff. The apprenticeship program offers us the resources to learn more and grow our capabilities, so we can maximize our potential within the world of specialty coffee,” she said.

Yeatts said Higher Grounds was looking at several positions for apprenticeships including barista and other areas of operations. As of deadline for this story, the application process was in play, as it was at other interested businesses.

One is Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, which hopes to proceed with a winemaker apprenticeship and is looking at other possibilities in its culinary and events departments and human resources, said Michael Lahti, director of operations.

He said Black Star Farms is looking to involve both new and existing workers in the programs and said the apprenticeships can reduce Black Star Farms’ training costs and help it attract and retain employees, in a limited market.

“The challenge up in northern Michigan…is we just don’t have a large labor pool,” Lahti said. “Opportunities like this to invest in our employees will help retain our employees,” he said, and apprenticeships will also assist the region.

At Leelanau County’s Rove Estate Vineyard and Tasting Room, husband and wife co-owners Creighton and McKenzie Gallagher were excited when in March they heard about the apprenticeship program. Their vineyard is five years old and the Rove Estate tasting room opened last May.

“Being a new business…we know how important it will be as we develop to attract talent and get the talent that we want for our big picture role for our business. And give people more than just a job, a career path,” said McKenzie Gallagher. “Our dream would be to have a team that can grow with us.”

She said Rove Estate is looking at two positions for apprenticeships: vineyard manager and winemaker. A benefit to apprenticeships, she said, is that they can respond to an employer’s unique needs.

They are a good way “to understand a business from the ground up, understand all the different aspects,” Gallagher said. “You can’t just hire that. I would prefer to have a program so that we could train and grow our talent.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.