MISSOULA — Over the past 20 years, Montana’s registered apprenticeship program has sent more than 3,300 workers into good-paying jobs, with another 2,400 on the way, according to a new report.
On Wednesday, Gov. Steve Bullock summarized the findings of a Department of Labor and Industry report on Montana’s Registered Apprenticeship program and praised the role that Missoula College has played in the program’s success.
Standing among the tools and tables of the carpentry trade in the college carpentry shop, Bullock said the registered apprenticeship program has grown in popularity and will continue to do so as the need continues to grow, especially now in the healthcare and childcare fields.
“Missoula College is really doing just incredible work in ensuring that apprenticeships continue to bring stability to the workforce and the community, even with the challenges we’re all facing the global pandemic,” Bullock said. “We’ve long celebrated this program for its flexibility to meet the near and immediate demands in the economy while connecting workers with good-paying jobs and ensuring businesses have the employees they need to be successful.”
Since 2000, the program has set up almost 10,000 apprenticeships in more than 110 occupations, according to the report. All counties but two have had at least one apprenticeship participant, but most of the programs are offered in the more populated counties of Lewis and Clark, Gallatin and Yellowstone.
The 2008 recession hit some Montana businesses hard, and young people struggled to find employment. As the state’s economy started to recover, increasing numbers turned to the apprenticeship program. From 2013 to 2019, the total number of apprenticeships increased by about 13% each year.
Bullock said he pushed a 2017 Legislative bill to give businesses a tax credit for taking on apprentices. The bill passed, and last year, more than 300 businesses qualified for the credit.
Currently, the most students by far are apprenticing in the construction trades, followed by healthcare and manufacturing. But especially now, with the pandemic, the fastest-growing apprenticeship opportunities are in the healthcare field. From 2015 to 2019, certified nursing assistants have had the highest growth in apprenticeships, while medical coding ranked 6th and medical assistants ranked 10th.
While about a third of the applicants canceled their apprenticeships, the 38% who completed their training have gone on to jobs paying an average annual wage of about $58,000. In addition to a good income, they have job stability. About 84% of the apprentices who graduated in 2015 are still working for a Montana employer.
That helps Montana retain skilled workers, Bullock said.
“You hear the mythology that (Montana is) always exporting our best and brightest. But we know that 80% of the young adults who graduate from a two- or four-year institution in Montana are still in Montana a year or two afterwards. What we need to look at is how do you train the next generation of bank CEO’s to welders? What we want to underscore to our kids and young folks is there’s so many paths to success in Montana,” Bullock said.
“I think back 8 years ago, when we were initially having discussions on the role of registered apprenticeship, it was somewhat foreign. And it was foreign to our higher education system in some respects. But it’s become such a critical partnership.”
University of Montana President Seth Bodner said UM takes seriously its role to provide a broad range of educational opportunities from four-year degrees to industrial certificates.
“We’re proud of the opportunities we provide to students working directly with employers to provide apprenticeships, the opportunity to earn while you learn,” Bodner said.
John Freer, Missoula College Director of Sustainable Construction Technology, said he learned by doing, coming up through the trades, but had to wait until later in life to get the education to go with his skills. But the students at Missoula College get both at the same time.
“We’ve got some great stories of apprentices out in the workforce now that came through our program. They’re able to take what they learned here, apply that in industry and leverage it into some very rewarding, great-paying jobs all across Montana,” Freer said. “It’s great to see the energy that’s going into the trades, it’s great to see a lot of the effort and support that’s behind it.”
Now nearing the end of his term as governor, Bullock said he didn’t think a new administration would cut back on the registered apprenticeship program. Once the pandemic is over, as the state works to rebuild its economy, businesses are going to need more skilled workers and the apprenticeship program can provide them, Bullock said.
“A long, long time ago, how we trained lawyers and everything else is sort of this work-based learning. It’s an old model. But what’s been created over the past 8 years is recognizing what an industry-recognized credential can do for somebody,” Bullock said. “While some things get caught in partisan food fights at times, this program shouldn’t.”