Montana’s apprenticeship program expands; schools giving participants a step forward
HELENA — Montana leaders have spoken about the need to involve more people in the skilled trades. For Zach Allen, a program at Capital High School paved the way for a career in the trades.
“I’ve always loved working with my hands,” he said.
Allen says he wasn’t that keen on four-year college, and Capital’s industrial technology classes showed him there was a path to a career in a different kind of work. After graduating he tried a plumbing job and then came to Green Source Electric, headquartered in Townsend.
“Once I started doing electrics, it was something that really piqued my interest,” he said.
Allen is now a registered apprentice for about a year and a half in a four-year program that combines classroom instruction and on-the-job training under the supervision of an employer. Since his start, he has worked on residential and commercial construction, in locations ranging from Helena to Townsend to Big Sky.
Green Source currently has three apprentices, with the first expected to complete the program within the next two weeks. Owner Derrick Hedalen says he was impressed with Allen’s work.
“We just have a great group of guys, and they all get along and help each other with their schoolwork — and he excels in his schoolwork, which is the biggest hurdle apprentices face,” Hedalen said.
Allen will finish his apprenticeship earlier than usual, as he was credited with 600 hours of training and a mandatory math course through work he did at Capital. An apprentice needs 8,000 hours before they can pass a test to become a “journeyman” – a fully trained worker.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry recognizes the Capital program as “pre-apprenticeship.”
“It gives students the opportunity to not only get out and see what the trades are like, but at the same time, if they decide to pursue a career in the trades, it will give them a head start in their apprenticeship program. said Mark Lillrose, Program Manager for the IDD Registered Learning Program.
Lillrose says about a dozen schools in Montana now offer this type of pre-apprenticeship program.
Capital teacher Tom Kain says students learn welding, drawing, carpentry and other skills. They also receive an introduction to more specialized jobs that the school is not equipped to teach full-time, such as plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning.
“They leave our program knowing the basic skills – they can read a tape measure, they can operate tools – and that’s half the battle, it’s being able to read a tape measure and ‘safely use saws, drills, whatever you need to do to get the job done in your trade,’ Kain said.
Kain said Allen was the first of his students to take credit for his work at Capital in the apprenticeship program. He said that as they strive to show students what is possible if they enter the trades, success will help demonstrate it.
“We have more kids climbing in the program, and we can use that as a good example of why,” he said.
Allen says he’s glad he made the decision to pursue a trades education and is excited to be on the path to a well-paying career without having to go into debt.
“I definitely have a lot of friends who graduated this year; I pushed them towards that,” he said. “They didn’t know if they wanted to go to college, so doing an apprenticeship or a trades job was my first suggestion for them.
Montana leaders say the state’s registered apprenticeship program is seeing strong growth. The IDD says the number of new apprentices has been growing for years: 183 in 2018, 286 in 2019, 381 in 2020 and 631 in 2021. They say they registered 515 new apprentices and 41 new sponsoring employers in the first half of 2022 alone .
Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration gave much of the credit for the latest increase to a new change in state rule. Previously, two journeypersons had to supervise each additional apprentice a company hired. Last year, however, the administration announced plans to change this ratio, so that one journeyman can supervise two apprentices. Leaders said in a statement that many of this year’s new sponsoring apprentices and employers joined after the change took effect.
Gianforte called the old ratio “unnecessary bureaucracy” that limited employers who wanted to offer more apprenticeship places. At the first meeting of his new housing task force last month, he touted the new rule as a milestone for the construction industries – especially with the continued demand for new home builds.
“These reforms help open the pipeline for more workers, and with more carpenters, plumbers and electricians, we can build more homes,” he said. “But there is more we need to do.”
Gianforte praises learning change
Hedalen says Green Source worked on more than 40 homes in the Helena area last year, about double what they had done in previous years. He said he’s seen a big increase in the number of people wanting to become apprentices, and he thinks that shows the importance of the rule change.
“I would put an ad for a journeyman electrician or a master, and I would get ten apprentice applications for maybe a journeyman application,” he said. “Before the ratio change, we were maxed out, so we couldn’t hire a high school graduate or hire anyone – we needed two more journeymen to have one more apprentice. So I think the ratio rule change helps a lot of small businesses.
But not everyone who works with apprentices supported the change. Leaders of the Montana Joint Learning and Training Centers have voiced their opposition, saying it could affect the quality of training — and possibly safety.
Bob Warren, an instructor at the Montana Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center in Helena, says their program has seen strong growth over the past seven years — and it’s still growing even though they’ve maintained a ratio of two journeymen to every apprentice.
“If we have 500 new apprentices, that’s fine, but let’s see where we are in two or three years,” he said. “Let’s see what the completion rate is for all these people – because the work is good right now, but being in the construction trade for the last 23 years, I know it’s feast or famine. So what happens when work inevitably slows down? Are we going to be able to get all these people through? And if they are not pushed, what will happen to them?
Warren also asked if the IDD would have enough staff to handle the application, especially if the number of apprentices continues to grow so rapidly.
“It was hard enough to get the app before this change,” he said. “I imagine that will only exacerbate the problem even more.”