BILLINGS - As talks heat up around the country regarding student loan forgiveness and the high costs of college, here in Montana, many are exploring a new approach to education.
Billings-based Tounsley Electric is one of a growing number of Montana companies participating in an apprenticeship program.
Gov. Greg Gianforte met with some of their apprentices Wednesday at the site of the new KOA headquarters in Billings.
For 17-year-old Owen Tounsley, it’s just another day on the job.
What makes Tounsley different from other high schoolers is that he’s attending school at Billings West while also apprenticing for his dad’s electric company.
“I started the program not too long ago but I’ve been working as a laborer for my dad for years,” said Tounsley.
Tounsley is talking about Montana’s Registered Apprenticeship Program. Tounsley Electric’s apprentices were busy working on a lighting project when the governor came to visit them.
“Through the work of the Department of Labor and Industry, we added 700 new apprentices so far this year and almost 60 new employers,” said Gianforte.
That’s more than 2019 and 2020 combined.
A big component of that figure had to do with a rule the governor changed last year, allowing a journeyman to supervise two apprentices instead of having two journeymen supervising one apprentice.
“The change in the ratio is huge for us. There’s a ton of work out there, and there’s a pretty dire shortage of skilled laborers of licensed electricians,” said Tounsley Electric owner Jason Tounsley.
Jason started the company in his garage 15 years ago, and the ratio change has allowed it to grow.
“Being able to almost double our workforce with apprentices has allowed us to take on a lot of this work that I don’t know how we would have got done any other way,” Jason Tounsley said.
Jason also started his career as an apprentice and now his son is following in his footsteps. Owen Tounsley plans to forgo a traditional four-year college.
“I won’t have student debts and loans and all that to pay off. And I’m making money right now as I’m going through high school still,” said Owen Tounsley.
It’s the first step to what he hopes will be a long career.
“I’d like to be an electrician. I want to move to Florida. Go fishing in Florida a lot,” said Owen Tounsley.