Iowa bill touts apprenticeships as sound alternative to college

"This offers a good career, a lot of opportunities and financial stability"

Published: March 11 2014 | 4:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:25 am in

Chris Thompson, 28, of Lowden, and Ryan Edwards, 31, of Cedar Rapids, spent part of Thursday afternoon testing flow rates on a pump typical in a waste water treatment plant as part of a hands-on lab at the electrical apprenticeship training center in Cedar Rapids.

They both had some college experience, some work experience and are both now in their third of five years of the Cedar Rapids Electrical Apprenticeship program. They earned a paycheck and benefits from day one, will make $60,000 a year by the time they graduate, and they won't have any debt.

"A lot of people come out of college and there's not a lot of job opportunities," said Thompson, who accumulated $28,000 in student debt from one year of private college and later realized he didn't want to work in an office. "This offers a good career, a lot of opportunities and financial stability."

A new governor-backed bill in the Iowa Legislature would put more money into apprenticeship programs, such as these.

Apprenticeships can combat a skilled labor shortage and one of the highest student debt levels in the nation, Gov. Terry Branstad and others say, but it challenges a notion that college is a key to success in life, which has been pushed for years by school systems, parents and even President Barack Obama.

While it may be unconventional, it may be a solution.

Earlier this year, Branstad proposed tripling funding from $1 million to $3 million for apprenticeships through the existing 260F worker training program, and shifting administration of the grants from community colleges and the Iowa Economic Development Authority to solely the IEDA.

Bills stemming from Branstad's Apprenticeship and Job Training Act are working through the Iowa House and Senate with general support although disagreement related to administration of the program and funding sources, said State Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville.

Dvorsky chairs the Senate appropriations committee where the legislation was assigned after being approved out of the economic development subcommittee on Feb. 24. He said he believes Democrats and Republicans have interest in approving the bill this legislative session, but success may hinge on shifting perceptions that college is the best option for young people.

"We need more of a shift to show students the full range of what is available," Dvorsky said.

High school and college students face a challenging road to independence. Among four-year college students in Iowa, 71 percent graduate with debt — the third highest in the nation — and carry an average debt load of $29,456 — the sixth highest, according to the Oakland, Calif.-based Project on Student Debt.

Apprenticeships, such as the electrical program, include a full-time job and a class/lab component at a training center either on a weekly basis or in multi-day blocks. Students start the five-year electrical program earning about $29,000 a year with benefits, and their salary increases as they matriculate up to about $60,000.

Students graduate with 8,000 hours of on-the-job training, 950 hours of class and lab time, a certificate recognized around the country, and no debt other than costs of books and personal tools, said Mike Carson, director of the training center at 2300 Johnson Ave. NW.

"We are trying to make the opportunities known at the high school level," Carson said. "It's difficult to get high school to understand this is a great post secondary option."

There's is also risk involved.

Compared to a well-rounded education in college, apprenticeships develop a very specific skill set, which can make trade workers susceptible when the work dries up.

For the next several years though, skilled labor will be in demand.

An Iowa Workforce Development report from July 2013 found that 56 percent of jobs in Iowa are "middle-skill," or jobs that require more than a high school degree but less than a four-year college degree, but only 33 percent of the Iowa workforce possess those skills.

Economic development leaders have been trying to address this gap as Iowa braces for billions of dollars worth of construction over the next several years, including $2 billion lined up in the Iowa City area, a $1.4 billion fertilizer plant in southeast Iowa and hundreds of millions worth of construction coming in Cedar Rapids.

Apprenticeship training centers such as the one Carson directs, the plumber and pipefitters training center, 5101 J St. SW, and the carpenters training center, 350 Waconia Ct. SW, are anticipating a surge in demand for workers in the coming months due to all of the construction.

Chip Davis, the plumber and pipefitter center director, has been trying to recruit at job fairs and high schools with mixed success.

"A lot of high schools, Cedar Rapids especially, it's hard to get apprenticeship programs into job fair," Davis said. "So many people believe you have to go to college to get ahead."

Tara Troester, the school-to-work coordinator for Cedar Rapids Metro, an alternative high school, has been trying to change the stereotype about options for students. She arranged a student tour of the pipefitters union, for example. She sees apprenticeships as a viable options for high school students, but agrees that students are still pushed towards college by default.

"I don’t think we’ve broken that stereotype that if you don’t go to college you won’t be a success in life," she said.

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