The ‘other four-year degree’ can lead to high compensation and meaningful work
Ask any high school junior (or their parents) on the precipice of completing their high school education: What are your hopes for the next parts of your lives? They may respond by listing such items as continuing education, growing financial independence with work, and gaining personal agency — a greater sense of purpose and self-regard.
For the consideration of young adults making their transitions from high school, Lance Calloway, northern district manager of the Washington state chapter of Associated General Contractors, is beaming an industrial-sized spotlight on huge opportunities: paid apprenticeships in commercial, industrial and public works construction — a pathway to economic and career success that Calloway calls the “other four-year degree.”
Apprenticeship programs provide professional training in the trade roles — large-scale construction workers, electricians, plumbers — for applicants of all ages. For any applicant, the most compelling feature of this “other four-year degree” is the on-the-job training that also pays. Participants complete 6,000 to 8,000 hours of supervised training that, importantly, is paid out at impressive living wages. In western Washington, apprentice programs aren’t just available — these programs need more applicants under the auspices of organizations such as the Inland Northwest AGC Apprenticeship, trade unions, the Construction Industry Training Council, and other certified institutions.
The AGC apprenticeship program began in Washington state in 1995 and debuted in Whatcom County in 2019. In Whatcom, AGC offers apprenticeships in commercial, industrial and public works construction (public schools, parks and roadways, for example) in three different roles: carpenter, heavy-equipment operator and laborer.
Besides compensation, another compelling feature of an apprenticeship is the collaborative structure among candidate, contractor and host program. The contractor is the experienced training agent who teaches “the how,” sharing the skills and processes of the trade. The apprenticeship program host teaches “the why,” adding polish and perfection. In its host role, AGC teaches everything from blueprint reading to building codes, conflict resolution to communication, health monitoring to CPR and first aid certifications.
Applicants get paid training for careers
Mike Ankney, who directs Inland Northwest AGC’s Apprenticeship Center statewide and is based in Spokane, described the power of connecting candidates to companies in dire need of qualified employees: “I’m the guy who goes into the high schools and asks juniors and seniors, ‘OK, what’s next?’”
Typically, the students who register the most certainty about next steps indicate they are headed to four-year universities. Ankney, to inspire options in the trades, respectfully problem-poses by asking how college will be afforded.
“Some have parents able to create college funds,” he said. He worries about those who talk of taking out student loans. “I refer to student loans as student mortgages,” Ankney said. “Young people, 17- and 18-year-olds, with little job history and no credit history, are receiving loans and being told, ‘you don’t have to pay this back now.’ So, they graduate, potentially with $150,000 in debt, and without job guarantees.”
In contrast, Ankney described the apprenticeship pathway. In Whatcom County, apprenticeship pay begins at a minimum of $25 per hour and averages much more per hour. Calloway provided a link to apprenticeship wages in Whatcom County, according to roles (laborer, carpenter, heavy-equipment operator): https://secure.lni.wa.gov/wagelookup/ApprenticeWageLookup.aspx.
Upon completing paid training, each finisher receives a journeyman card, the certificate of competency for sought-after transferable skills. The card, the esteemed diploma of the trades, can be presented anywhere in the U.S. for an abundance of job openings. Ankney said, “You have a job and your way to independence. You have financial solutions: you can buy a rig, you can save for a house.”
To his high school audiences, Ankney says, “I’m not offering you a job. Apprenticeships are careers.”
Employers desperately need a workforce
For employers, the big driver for participating in apprenticeship programs is developing a viable and competent workforce. As veteran pros in the trades prepare to retire, their replacements will be the next generation of up-and-comers — people whom companies are desperate to train and hire. Calloway reported that of the companies AGC partners with, “most could hire up to 20% more apprentices — and that’s the minimum just for those employers to breathe a little more easily.”
One company owner told Calloway his requirements for prospective applicants: “One, show up. Two, be willing to listen and learn. Three, pass a drug test.”
Within the industry, both
Calloway and Ankney emphasized the flexibility to change roles as workers understand strengths and interests. Someone may start as a carpenter and move to being an estimator.
Also, apprenticeships approved and certified by Washington state are among the most stringent providers in the country.
Washington House Bill 1050 creates pressure
In the coming legislative session, Washington state House Bill 1050 will create a mandate for paid apprenticeships in public works construction. Starting in 2028, contracts estimated to cost $1 million or more must require that at least 15 percent of labor hours be performed by apprentices enrolled in approved apprenticeship training programs.
“There’s a lot of capital in public works projects,” Calloway said. He believes the bill, while putting more pressure on public works construction bidders, also incentivizes apprenticeship training to create a skilled, trained, safe workforce.
Ankney emphasized the ethics of construction: “These employers promote from within, reward responsibility for the self and the whole, and work hard.”
Colleagues Calloway and Ankney, blunt and skilled communicators, are two of the best employer advocates and career coaches — especially for those unaware of potential earnings and careers in the trades. Their shared mission is to match up employers’ desperate needs for skilled tradespeople with the potential that apprentices have for serious earning power, regular increases, health benefits and retirement plans.
A jaw-dropping number of opportunities for careers in the trades exist, yet there is a shortage of applicants. (Hello, high school parents, teachers and career counselors.) Among hiring companies, there also are urgent calls for women, people of color and unconventional applicants to the trades, vocations that can “change lives and help our American economy,” Ankney stated.
Construction is for everyone
“Trades are starting to get a different look,” Calloway said.
“The old stereotypes are going away,” Ankney said. “We need women and people of color. Diversity makes us stronger and helps us immensely.”
Last year, Calloway launched the annual Northwest Construction Career Day at the Whatcom County fairgrounds in Lynden. He was happy that attendees were asking about what an apprenticeship takes, how much it pays and what the difference is between working union or open shop.
But he was thrilled when three high school students, all female, were asking the most important questions: “Where are the drywallers? When can we try welding? Nobody talks about plumbing?”
Calloway is taking these suggestions to heart to improve the career day planned for 2024.
Importantly, paid apprenticeship programs in the trades aren’t just for soon-to-be high school graduates or young adults.
These entry points also may be for those who find their current jobs ill-fitting — those not suited for office life, as the tradeup2construction.com website from AGC Inland Northwest puts it, in the “fluorescent-lit cube farm.” Apprenticeships may be for those like the previously incarcerated.
When asked for stand-out apprentices, Ankney talked about Corey Cook, featured on the Trade Up 2 Construction website.
“The only thing I had completed,” Cook said, “was a prison sentence.” He continued, “Then, I finished the Washington state apprenticeship program, the second thing I completed. I’m making good wages, and my only concern is how I allocate my earnings.”
How to be an apprentice
“You can access apprenticeship programs through local labor unions,” Calloway said. “You can also contact local commercial construction contractors to inquire if their new hires can be placed into apprenticeship programs.”
Another avenue: The pre-application deadline for Whatcom County’s Apprenticeship in Construction is June 1, 2024. This six-week class introduces people to construction trades, both union and non-union. Visit https://nwagcapprenticeship.org/ to apply.
“In the trades,” Ankney said, “there is a place for everybody.”
As long as everyone is in their place.
“The key,” Calloway said, “is getting applicants on the pathways.”