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The New Apprenticeship

By: Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

Programs like MAT2 are redefining the apprenticeship model

Michigan’s economic recovery, a surge of retiring baby boomers and major innovations in technology all mean more job opportunities for job seekers and high schoolers staring down graduation. Yet, this evolving job market will require workers to possess sometimes entirely new skill sets.

While a four-year degree is certainly one way to develop important job skills, apprenticeships are proving to be an increasingly attractive alternative. This “earn while you learn” career path couples training with paid on-the-job work experience.

One industry where apprenticeships are especially on the rise is in the building and construction trades. While the foundation of today’s construction apprenticeship is similar to how it has been for 100 years, the curriculum is ever evolving to meet the demands of the industry and technology.

Jennifer Mefford, a consultant to MUST Careers and the Michigan Building & Construction Trades Council, espoused the merits of the industry’s apprenticeship programs.

“All of our apprenticeships offer wages and work from the beginning,” said Mefford, who also serves as director of business development for IBEW-NECA. “Each construction trade has a labor/management partnership in place, which allows our apprentices immediate job placement.”

To be considered for an apprenticeship, interested applicants must have earned their high school diploma or GED, have reliable transportation and be drug-free. Those accepted into the program will receive on-the-job training for the next two to five years depending on the trade. While working, they will be paid, can qualify for benefits and can rest in the assurance of full-time employment at the apprenticeship’s end based on market demand.

“Typically, 90 percent of the apprenticeship experience is on the job,” Mefford said.

The other 10 percent of an apprentice’s time is spent in a lab or classroom setting, where they will learn the basics and theory of their craft. Mefford added that an estimated 1,000 new apprentices will be taken in across the Michigan Building Trades unions in 2015 at the current market pace.

“That represents 1,000 new careers that pay wages beginning from week one,” she said.

Upon completion of apprenticeships, participants are considered journeymen and can remain in the field, pursue additional education for specialty skills and eventually move on to supervisory or management roles if desired. It is not uncommon, Mefford said, for apprentices to go on and eventually become owners themselves.

“Construction is a highly entrepreneurial business,” she said. And it’s also far from the only industry well-suited for apprentices.

Matt Goodrich is manager of continuous improvement for Secure-24, a Southfield-based business that provides managed IT operations, application hosting and cloud services. His is one of the employers engaged with the Michigan Advanced Technician Training (MAT2 or MAT Squared) Program, an apprenticeship combining theory, practice and work. Participants alternate between school periods at one of the local participating community colleges and work periods on-site at the company that has effectively sponsored their apprenticeship.

“MAT2 is based off the German education model,” said Goodrich, who chairs the steering committee for the MAT2 IT program. “In Germany, companies interview students, hire them and then send them to college. The MAT2 program is three years in duration. At the end of those three years, participants graduate with an associate degree, zero debt and a full-time job.”

The first cohort of the MAT2 IT program began in 2014 with 13 students, four of whom were based at Secure-24. The second cohort will soon start at Lansing Community College and include up to 15 students.

Other MAT2 programs include: one focused on design and visualization, and another focused on mechatronics, the name derived from the combination of “mechanical” and “electronics technology.” Mechatronics draws on knowledge of electrical, mechanical, computer and industrial engineering for product design.

“What’s unique about MAT2 is that it’s competency-based,” Goodrich said. “At the end of every semester, students will prepare a presentation and demonstrate skills learned during the semester.”

Goodrich QuoteMAT2 participants in the IT program may ultimately end up holding any range of jobs, including help desk technician, network software developer, database administrator or even an IT project manager.

“The program gives participants exposure to a wide range of competencies,” Goodrich said. “Many IT people get stuck working in one area of technology. The MAT2 experience will provide participants with foundational knowledge allowing them to move around within the IT industry.”

For the employers’ part, their involvement guarantees a pipeline of talent trained in their way of doing business. They screen, interview, select and hire the applicants who will work in their facility. Students then commit to a minimum of two years of full-time employment with the company beyond the three-year apprenticeship.

Sophie Stepke, a training manager for German car parts maker ZF Friedrichshafen, whose North American operations are based in Northville, said her employer has sponsored several MAT2 participants.

“If we hire external employees into our company, it always includes a lot of training,” she said. “It’s expensive. For us, (MAT2) is an opportunity to develop in-house, then keep these students and make them our employees.”