Apprentices training to replace the masters in skilled trades
Aaron Miller comes to work every day just like everyone else at Con-Vey Holding Inc., where he manufactures machines for companies all over the world.
At the end of his shift at 3:30 p.m., he prepares for class at Umpqua Community College for the classroom portion of his machinist apprenticeship.
He is one of thousands of apprentices in Oregon going through union and non-union apprenticeships, a centuries-old practice of passing skills from one generation to the next. He is set to “card-out” and become a journeyman in three years.
The number of apprentices in programs all over the state are multiplying and UCC Dean of Career and Technical Education Jason Aase said it is in line with economy growth, the opposite of associate degree programs.
“When the economy is doing well, employers are doing well and typically the apprenticeship numbers will bubble up,” Aase said. “When the economy is doing well, employers are in growth mode, they are expanding, so it tends to be our number of apprentices also increases with that economic boom.”
All of the apprenticeships are employee-sponsored, so the classes at UCC aren’t open to just anyone. As of April, over 3,700 people were enrolled in apprenticeship programs statewide according to the Bureau of Labor and Industries. The completion rates are still in the 1,000s, but Operations Manager at BOLI Jessica Ponaman said the bureau tries to make it accessible for people to take care of their needs and then the industry’s.
“The majority of our apprenticeship program are in the construction trades so they are very tied to those industries,” Ponaman said. “When there’s a demand for construction, then it’s likely to result in a rise for registered apprentices as well.”
An apprenticeship was ideal for Miller who never had an interest in going to college despite the pressure he felt in high school, but wants to provide for his family.
“I jumped on it because it was a legitimate path to go. So there was that peace of mind of having a goal plus the money,” Miller said. “When you’re a journeyman, you get paid for it. It’s something to hang your hat on.”
When Miller applied to work at Con-Vey, Plant Manager Travis Pritchett saw something more than Miller’s application for entry-level welder. He offered Miller the chance to be a machinist apprentice after a year with the company.
“Every year, we’re losing more and more people who have 40-plus years of experience on the job,” Pritchett said. “Who’s going to fill that hole? The reality is, we can make all the investments in the world in the physical plant, the machinery inside the plant, but if we don’t have the people to do the work, then we really don’t have anything.”
In 2017, workers 55 years and older in construction and manufacturing made up nearly a quarter of the workforce, according to the Oregon Department of Employment.
He likes the precision work of machining, making parts that need to be precise within 1/100 of an inch for the machine to work, and the proverbial doors the journeyman card will open for him should he ever leave the company, although he doesn’t see that happening any time soon.
His apprenticeship classes are paid for on a reimbursement schedule, so when he cards out at the end of the four-year program, Con-Vey will have paid for all of his tuition. The rates for apprenticeship classes are the same cost per credit as any other class at UCC.
“We are looking for someone who can demonstrate consistently that they have the work ethic and drive and aptitude to be successful,” Pritchett said. “It’s a big investment on both of our parts. It’s a big investment on the prospective apprentice’s part in time and effort and it’s an investment for the company in training that person and we fund it.”
The apprentices at Con-Vey go to the same location every day and go to class on a regular basis, but the training varies based on certification requirements, union status and job types.
Pritchett has a several different types of apprenticeships going on at once, but Umpqua Sheet Metal Manager John Walker only has two apprentices, both sheet metal workers.
Marcus Hall, the newest apprentice, likes the variety he gets every morning when he shows up at Umpqua Sheet Metal at 7 a.m. every morning. He goes into Walker’s office and is given a new assignment that could take him anywhere in the state to work on heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
“I wish I would have been here earlier,” Hall said. “If I would have gotten right out of high school and done it right away, it would have been better, but I’m happy that I’m here now and doing something.”
HVAC installers make a median wage of $22.20 per hour according to the Oregon Employment Department.
Once or twice per quarter, Hall spends a week in Portland at the union shop learning about the trade then he goes back home to immediately use what he learned.
“It’s a good way to go about learning to become a master of something,” Hall said. “I’m a good welder, but I don’t have that depth of knowledge with welding. I learned how to do it but it’s not like doing it every day as your job; learning and doing it.”
Walker has been in the industry for more than 40 years. He has two apprentices working for him now.
“If you don’t recreate yourself, you’ll work yourself out of a job,” Walker said. “We do it to recreate a new generation of journeymen, to teach the next generation your skills. Skilled craftsman in sheet metal or HVAC are rare. We’re basically building a model of ourselves.”
Apprentices are trained in skilled trades that Walker said “can’t be learned on an app on your phone.” Miller has three more years of work until he graduates.
“As long as there is a need to build houses or build hospitals or make parts for semi-trucks or tractors or anything we use in our daily life, unless there’s a sudden change in the way we live our life as a whole, manufacturing is never going to go anywhere,” Miller said. “The way to keep skilled workers making quality products is to train them up.”