For Sherrie Tullsen-Chin, taking college-level courses and receiving on-the-job training never paid so well.
The 37-year-old San Jose woman is an apprentice electrician. She works all day with an experienced contractor to learn her craft and takes classroom courses at night, earning credit at the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District in Alameda County.
The starting wage for an apprentice in the program? $19.66 an hour.
“I don’t know anywhere where honestly you can walk in off the street knowing nothing and someone is willing, just based on a test and an interview, to give you a job,” Tullsen-Chin said. “And you get paid well from the beginning.”
Tullsen-Chin is in the second year of her apprenticeship through the Alameda County Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee for the Electrical Trade. The apprenticeship, based in San Leandro, is a five-year training program for would-be electricians. Tullsen-Chin will continue to receive pay raises every six months throughout the program, until she graduates in five years to a journeyman-level electrician, where she will command $49.15 per hour.
Apprenticeships – a longstanding but generally low-profile career training option available throughout the state – are gaining new traction as an untapped resource in efforts to better prepare students for college and careers. Apprentices are paid employees, hired as workers in their chosen field, but they also receive hundreds of hours of in-classroom instruction as part of their training. Apprenticeships provide a steady “earn as you learn” pathway to a lucrative profession – and, depending on the program, a chance to earn college credit at the same time.
“People just don’t understand the resource here and how it creates an entry to the middle class,” said Jack Buckhorn, chairman of the California Apprenticeship Council, the state board that oversees apprenticeship programs. The council is working to raise awareness of apprenticeships and their role in preparing an experienced work force to take over for today’s generation of aging workers – as well as the alternate path apprenticeships offer to students looking toward future careers.
California has the largest apprenticeship system in the nation, with about 54,000 apprentices training in more than 800 occupations, mostly in the construction trades. Yet many high school students and young adults have never heard of the training opportunities provided through paid apprenticeships. The apprenticeship model, which has been so successful in Germany and other European countries, has never caught on quite as strongly in the United States, said Buckhorn, who works as business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 551, based in Santa Rosa.
“We’ve lost (work-focused career technical education) programs in the schools,” Buckhorn said, “so students aren’t exposed to this as an alternative. They don’t know anything other than, ‘I’ve got to go to college, and if I don’t go to college, I’ve got to figure (my future) out.’”
“Nobody really talked about going into a trade when we were in high school,” said Colton Bermingham, a third-year apprentice electrician in the San Leandro program. Bermingham, 26, learned of the program from a family friend who is an electrician.
“I got in when I was 23,” he said. “I could have gone in five years earlier had I known about it. It’s something that’s a college experience on its own. It’s just not (the kind where you) go to class and pay a ton of money to have someone tell you their thoughts on how the world works. This is real-world mechanical knowledge that you learn by experiencing how the job is done. It’s pretty cool stuff.”
Awareness of apprenticeships is rising, however, due to reforms at the state and national level that are putting a new emphasis on preparing students for college and careers. The Obama administration this year launched the American Apprenticeship Initiative program, a $100 million competitive grant program to expand apprenticeships. And pending legislation by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, Senate Bill 923, would create a competitive grant program available to districts, county offices of education and community colleges to expand apprenticeship programs in California.
The push follows a December report by the Center for American Progress, which argues that expanding the apprenticeship network can help the nation meet a growing demand for skilled workers.
“By 2020, America is projected to experience a shortage of 3 million workers with associate’s degrees or higher and 5 million workers with technical certificates and credentials,” the report said. “… Evidence on the effectiveness and return on investment for apprenticeships is strong – they are overwhelmingly recommended by employers and lead to significant increases in lifetime earnings and benefits of up to $300,000 for workers.”
In California, apprenticeship programs are overseen by the Division of Apprenticeship Standards within the state Department of Industrial Relations. The state budget provided about $23 million to help pay for training and salaries for apprentices, but the bulk of the cost of the programs are borne by the providers – often the trades’ unions – who hire and train the apprentices. The electrician program that is training Bermingham and Tullsen-Chin, for instance, is supported by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Northern California chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association.
“People just don’t understand the resource here and how it creates an entry to the middle class,” said Jack Buckhorn, chairman of the California Apprenticeship Council.
Apprenticeship programs are also tied to an educational agency – a community college, or a local adult school or regional occupational program – which oversees and certifies the classroom instruction portions of the training. A partnership with a community college allows apprentices to earn college credit for any classroom-based instruction they receive. Those credits can be applied toward a future associate degree, if the apprentice chooses to pursue additional general education coursework at the college.
“It’s such a great deal,” said Julia Dozier, executive director of economic development and contract education for the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District, which oversees seven apprenticeship programs.
Entrance requirements vary by program, but generally all one needs to apply for an apprenticeship is to meet a minimum age requirement – 17 or 18, in many cases – have a high school diploma or its equivalent, and to pass a reading comprehension and math test.
Still, the programs aren’t easy, Dozier said. The state requires a minimum of 144 hours of classroom training and a minimum of 2,000 hours of on-the-job training to complete an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships can last from two to five years, depending on the complexity of the program.
The classwork is challenging.
“It’s not simple,” Dozier said. “It is drafting, it is math and algebra … So it’s not easy, it’s just a different kind of learning. There are a lot of people that learn much better by hands-on and getting involved in whatever it is.”
Hoping to expose students earlier to the career options provided by apprenticeships, Buckhorn is working to secure grant funding to help create pre-apprenticeship programs in high schools in Marin and Sonoma counties. The programs give students an introduction to the trades, offering elective classes in safe handling of tools, how to read blueprints, and math skills, among other courses. The programs teach students about the availability of apprenticeships, expose them to a career in the construction trade, and give students some basic skills so they’re better prepared to begin an apprenticeship out of high school.
Apprentice programs in California are also facing another challenge: expanding their reach beyond the construction trades, where the availability of work tends to wane in tough economic times. Rapidly changing fields such as health care and manufacturing are looking to the apprenticeship model to help provide a stream of well-trained workers.
Apprenticeships also hold promise in retraining workers for new careers, which is how Tullsen-Chin found herself in the apprentice program.
She worked for 11 years in the mental health field, working with foster youth in a career she didn’t enjoy. She learned about the electrical apprenticeship through a friend and it appealed to her because of her interest in working with her hands and her knack for working with tools.
“I definitely see myself doing this for the rest of my working years,” she said.