Trick of the Trades: Funding sparks apprenticeship programs in northern Michigan

Last year, Michigan received more than $14 million in grant funding to foster and support registered apprenticeship programs.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s grant to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity will be disbursed to employers ranging from manufacturers to craft breweries to honey farms through Northwest Michigan Works!

Nationally, apprenticeship programs have been on the rise in recent years. According to Department of Labor statistics, the U.S. gained 3,133 new apprenticeship programs in 2019 alone, bringing the number of registered apprenticeship programs in the nation to nearly 25,000.

That figure was a 128% increase from where U.S. apprenticeships had been a decade earlier. In total, there were over 633,000 workers enrolled in apprenticeships during 2019 – more than 250,000 of whom entered the apprenticeship system that year.

According to Evelyn Szpliet, who serves as manager of apprenticeships and business resource networks for Northwest Michigan Works!, the 12-year-old apprenticeship program gained ground in the past five years because of employer incentives and increased funding.

“There wasn’t a lot of support behind (apprenticeships) from the state or federal government,” Szpliet said of the 2000s and early 2010. “It wasn’t really until 2016 that there were additional dollars in grant funds to help support these types of programs, by offering incentives to employers who select apprenticeship as their training method.”

Technically, employers can develop apprenticeship programs in-house and go through the process of registering them with the Department of Labor on their own.

Or they can use the services offered by Northwest Michigan Works!, which assists employers with 95% of the paperwork and management of the program at no cost.

“…(W)e, as an organization, take apprenticeship very seriously,” Szpliet said. “Providing that free service … has boosted apprenticeships in all different types of occupations, from very traditional trades to very non-traditional trades.”

By sponsoring local apprenticeships and removing some of the pain points of launching these types of programs, Northwest Michigan Works! has helped grow apprenticeships in the region beyond what many people think of when they picture an apprenticeship program.

The common misconception, Szpliet says, is that apprenticeships are only commonplace in traditional skilled trades like manufacturing, construction and electrical trades. While Northwest Michigan Works! has sponsored these types of apprenticeships, the organization has also been working to push the envelope on what these programs can be, utilizing the Department of Labor’s extensive list of 1,400 occupations that are recognizable as apprenticeship opportunities.

“We have a lot of traditional trades like farming and manufacturing and construction (in northern Michigan) but we also have beekeeper apprenticeships; we have accounting technician apprenticeships; we have apprenticeships for office managers, and medical assistants, and soil conservation technicians, and winemakers; we even have a very vibrant culinary apprenticeship program,” she said. “So it’s such a wide variety, and it’s wonderful to see because many believe that apprenticeship is only for traditional trades.”

The approach seems to be working. In the past year, Northwest Michigan Works! has sponsored apprenticeship programs for Boyne Resorts, Kalkaska Memorial Health Center, Four Leaf Brewing in Clare, and Precision Plumbing and Heating Systems – among many others.

Not only have more and more local employers been finding their way to apprenticeships in recent years, but some have also doubled down on these types of programs after seeing positive results. Some companies add non-traditional trade apprenticeships to their traditional trade cadre.

“That’s exciting, because it means they see the opportunity across every level of their staffing,” Szpliet said.

The process of building a program can vary depending on the employer and the profession. Basic steps include identifying the occupation, the timeline, what on-the-job training will be established, and what kind of related instruction the apprentice will receive, Szpliet said.

“…(T)here are two main components to the apprenticeship program: there is the on-the-job, hands-on skills training; and then there’s also curriculum that goes along with that, which really complements the on-the-job training portion of it,” she said.

To help, Northwest Michigan Works! provides samples, research for the employers, and assistance. Once the program plan is completed, the Northwest Michigan Works! team submits it to the Department of Labor on behalf of the employer as its sponsor.

“Feedback has been absolutely positive,” Szpliet said. “Many of our apprenticeship partners, after they developed one program, have decided to expand and develop multiple programs, because it is such a great resource and tool for them – for their training needs and also to fill any workforce gaps.”