CLEVELAND — America is reacquainting itself with apprenticeships, and for good reason. The age-old practice of learning while earning is helping fill massive worker shortages without the weight of college debt.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows the number of active apprentices has risen steadily since 2013. Nationwide, there were 585,000 last year, with about 19,000 in Ohio.
There is a new spin on the old practice here at home that has promise to pay off for both manufacturers and the next generation of workers.
"My name is Jana Bernard and I'm 18 years old, and I'm a CNC operator at Elyria Plastic Products."
"My name is Julian Harris. I'm 19 years old, and I'm a stock keeper and assembler at Lincoln Electric."
Jana and Julian are trailblazers. They are part of the first graduating class of Early College, Early Career or ECEC.
Earning while learning
It is a youth apprenticeship program; unlike any other in the nation. Its aim is two-fold: Fix job deserts and fill manufacturing jobs.
"It seemed interesting, so I signed up," said Harris.
"I thought it was really helpful, that's for sure, for a lot of people including myself," said Bernard.
The program is offered to upper classmen at seven high schools in three counties: Lorain, Cuyahoga and Lake.
The students attend class at Lorain County Community College or Tri-C twice a week. Plus, begin a two-year paid internship in their junior year. They go full-time in the summer. Then, entertain a job offer upon graduation.
It is a lot of work, but it pays off.
"These students will graduate with two years work experience, 15 credit hours towards a college degree, and I did not mention they will also graduate with an industry-recognized credential in manufacturing," said Autumn Russell, executive director, ECEC.
Russell helps run the ECEC program.
As a mom, she loves the doors it opens to kids who may not see a four-year college degree in their future.
"So, we're offering opportunity for students who need it the most," she said.
As an industry insider, she recognizes the value of building the talent pipeline.
"This is what these companies need to grow," said Ethan Karp, MAGNET president and CEO. "This is what they need to survive, and they're willing to invest and make that happen today."
The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, or MAGNET, created the Early College, Early Career program.
Karp says there are 3,000 openings in advanced manufacturing in Northeast Ohio. Many current employees are retiring soon, and companies need new blood to keep growing and producing products.
Celebrating the skilled trades is catching on.
In May of 2019, the Lorain County Joint Vocational School held its first "signing day" event. Seniors got the super star treatment as they signed on to work for local carpenters, HVAC companies and masons.
"Just like an NFL or NBA draft, this is changing those young men and women's lives as well," said Dr. Glenn Faircloth, superintendent of Lorain County JVS.
The Early College, Early Career program is unique in that it exposes students in traditional high schools to the trades.
Elyria Plastic Products, where Jana works, is a small, family-owned manufacturer with customers around the world.
Lincoln Electric, where Julian works, is one of the largest employers in Cleveland with about 3,000 employees locally—more globally.
They have different mediums, but the same message: "There are communities in Cleveland that are looking for jobs for families, either different jobs or better jobs, and we offer that opportunity to the community," said Geoff Lipnevicius of Lincoln Electric.
They are hoping the youth apprenticeship program helps spread the word.
Students like Harris and Bernard, are confident it's helping them spread their wings.
Both plan to further their college education while working, and both employers offer the possibility of tuition reimbursement. At Lincoln Electric, it's up to $5,300 a year.
"Either, I could come back and help the company, or I could start my own business," smiled Harris.
"Don't just wait for an opportunity to show up, it's not going to come knocking at your door, you have to go knock on its door," said Bernard.
This year, 72 students are in the early ECEC program. Last year, the retention rate was about 92%.
MAGNET is asking for more manufacturing companies to sign-up and help train and hire the students. More info here.