There are over 300,000 open jobs in Virginia. Both recruitment and retention issues have made filling those positions difficult.
“It’s the strangest labor market we’ve ever seen,” said Kara Joyce, the Southwest region’s registered apprenticeship consultant for the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, at a panel on workforce development in October.
Expanding apprenticeship programming could be a solution, Joyce said.
What is the Registered Apprenticeship Program?
This week is National Apprenticeship Week, which was established eight years ago to highlight the value of registered apprenticeships for “rebuilding the economy, advancing racial and gender equity, and supporting underserved communities,” according to the Apprenticeship USA website.
The program takes a two-pronged approach. Apprentices learn alongside a mentor for on-the-job training and have related technical instruction, a classroom-like component that includes coursework and theory of the occupation.
This ensures that apprentices get both the “how” and the “why,” Joyce said.
“It’s an ancient system,” she said. “Apprenticeship in general goes back to the Middle Ages, but modern apprenticeship is so different from what people tend to think about…it’s a great way to give people a path forward.”
Registered apprenticeship is an industry-driven and occupation-specific training model. It allows employees to upskill in a job they already hold, or it can train new employees in a field that they’re interested in.
The Virginia DOLI also has apprenticeship programming and grants for citizens returning to society after incarceration and workers with disabilities.
Natori Neal, the apprenticeship coordinator for the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, explained the difference between an internship and an apprenticeship.
Internships are typically short-term, she said. But “apprenticeships are usually a full-time, paid, structured, occupation-specific job.”
And apprenticeships require a 2,000-hour or one-year training term at minimum that’s supplemented with related technical instruction, unlike a summer-long internship.
At the end of a registered apprenticeship program, apprentices get a journeyworker card, which is a portable national credential. And apprenticeships also require a progressive wage scale, Neal said.
In Virginia, employers pay federal or state minimum wage, whichever is higher, said Trish Morrison, director of the registered apprenticeship program for the Virginia DOLI.
“It’s earn while you learn,” she said.
Both DOLI and the IALR can help with getting an apprenticeship program created for an employer, but they don’t usually help with recruiting apprentices. That falls primarily on the employer, Morrison said.
Registered apprenticeships in Southwest and Southside
Localities can work alongside the state to bolster apprenticeships in their area. That’s what’s happening in GO Virginia Region 3.
GO Virginia is a business-led economic development initiative that promotes regional collaboration and workforce development. The organization splits the state into nine regions.
Region 3 consists of 15 Southern Virginia localities: the cities of Danville and Martinsville and the counties of Amelia, Brunswick, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Halifax, Henry, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Patrick, Pittsylvania and Prince Edward.
The IALR is working to beef up internships in these localities.
In August, the IALR in Danville became an established intermediary for the registered apprenticeship program, an official designation to help the organization continue the work it was already doing.
“Being a registered intermediary allows us to continue to promote apprenticeship as a high-quality, work-based learning model with the state backing us,” said Neal.
With this designation, IALR can convene industry partners, education partners, and stakeholders to have conversations around apprenticeships and broker services, Neal said. It can also help employers create and register an apprenticeship program.
“We also also have the capability to administer registered apprenticeship programs for companies like small businesses who may not have the capacity to handle the administrative functions of registered apprenticeship themselves,” Neal said.
IALR can also be a resource for employers in their recruitment process, after a program is created.
“That primarily falls on the companies,” Neal said. “But we have the capacity to help with that, due to our involvement within the local school systems and with area higher education. We can connect businesses with talent or provide avenues for them to check into the workforce.”
IALR’s ExTRA program, which stands for Expanding Talent through Registered Apprenticeships, recently received a grant of almost half a million dollars to grow apprenticeships in Region 3.
The Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which invests in economic development projects across Southwest and Southside Virginia, awarded the IALR a grant of $497,890.
This money will help “create a regional apprenticeship consortium to recruit apprentices and employers, as well as serve as the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s intermediary sponsor,” according to a press release Nov. 14.
IALR will focus specifically on expanding apprenticeships in the construction, healthcare, early childhood education, manufacturing and information technology industries, said the release.
The goal is to support 36 new apprentices per year for the next three years, Neal said. Right now there are six apprentices in the region.
The Danville Regional Foundation and employers will provide matching funds for the grant, according to the release.
“The total estimated contribution from employers (for apprenticeship wages and benefits) is over $7 million for the three years of the grant period,” said the release.
This grant is a follow-up to a $64,800 grant from the Tobacco Commission in 2021. In part, that funding supported Neal’s position.
Since then, Neal has helped several local employers establish registered apprenticeship programs, including Southside Mechanical Services, a Danville-based plumbing company, Daniel Builders, LLC, a construction company in Pittsylvania County, Blair Construction in Gretna, Jones Electrical Contractors in Brodnax, and SOVA Health, which has an apprenticeship program in sonography.
And Haymes Brothers Construction, another construction company in Pittsylvania, is an “employer of record.” This means the IALR sponsored an apprenticeship program there, fulfilling its role as an intermediary.
Jessie Vernon, IALR’s advanced learning program manager, said the IALR team isn’t aware of any other established intermediaries in the region.
And other intermediary sponsors are typically focused on a specific occupation or traded sector, she said, unlike IALR.
“We are a little unique in that we are focusing on a geographic region to build an apprenticeship consortium, regardless of sector,” Vernon said. “It’s really about the economic growth of the region as a total rather than doing it in one specific sector. We’re making sure that we diversify all of that.”
Morrison, the registered apprenticeship program director at DOLI, said the state is curious to see where Southwest Virginia goes with apprenticeships.
“Since Southwest has been kind of quiet for so long, we’re just watching to see what emerges,” she said. “It occurred to me that the more rural an area is, the more independently it pursues its own economic fields. Richmond isn’t necessarily going to really know what the local economic development people are working.”
But she said communication with localities and DOLI is important. “Anytime we can meet with people locally and get our finger on the pulse and see what’s popping, we do,” she said. “We’re big fans of trying to anticipate where the hockey puck is going to go.”
Morrison said she’d love to see construction apprenticeships take off in a rural area, because the state needs affordable housing.
“There are some really fascinating things that are coming up [in the Southwest],” she said.
Status of apprenticeships in Virginia
There are about 15,000 apprentices in Virginia, according to DOLI. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been pushing for this number to increase to address workforce development and the open job positions.
“Governor Youngkin wants to see adoption of [apprenticeships] in more industries, more sectors,” Morrison said.
But this has also proved challenging. “Large companies get rooted in how they do things and they don’t change very easily,” she said. “But that’s really what needs to happen.”
According to a study that IALR did back in 2018, Region 3 had just 2.9% of the state’s total number of active apprenticeship programs.
“Given that Region 3 comprises 4.4% of Virginia’s population, the number of apprenticeships is lower, but not significant; however, the diversity of apprenticeship positions is lacking,” the study said.
“A majority of [Region 3] apprenticeships have been in cosmetology, barbering, ophthalmology,” Brown said.
This isn’t a bad thing, she said. But the IALR would like to see more apprenticeships in traded sectors and industries like construction and manufacturing.
“Nationally about 50% of apprenticeships are in the construction trades,” she said. “Well, we’ve got a housing problem [in Danville]. Guess how construction trades programs we have? Not many.”
Only 12% of the apprenticeships in Region 3 are in construction trades, Brown said. But this is one of the industries that IALR will focus on with the Tobacco Commission grant money.
The report also surveyed over 100 employers in Region 3 and found that 87 companies expressed interest in offering apprenticeships within three years. Only 17 companies were not interested.
Julie Brown, IALR’s vice president of advanced learning, said that even though this study is a bit dated, it emphasizes the interest for apprenticeships in the region.
Nationally, Virginia “fares pretty well” when it comes to apprenticeships, Brown said.
“But that’s largely because of what’s happening in the Hampton Roads area,” she said. “A couple parts of the state are doing really well.”
Region 3 should see an increase in registered apprenticeships with the IALR’s work and the Tobacco Commission grant, the IALR team said. Brown said she’d specifically like to see more youth apprenticeships.
“That would be what success looks like for me,” she said.
Why are apprenticeships important?
The pandemic changed the way people work, Morrison said.
“For the foreseeable future, I think the leverage will be in the hands of the talent,” she said. “They are no longer going to work long, crazy hours for these tech companies who are just turning around and laying everybody off.”
Employees are now seeking out companies that have a culture they like, Morrison said.
“People are going to look at their lives post-COVID and say, I’ve got opportunities to pivot and do whatever I want to do,” she said. “And once you get that skill, no one can take that away from you.”
And loyalty has become more important than ever in employer-employee relationships, Morrison said. Joyce, with DOLI, also talked about this during the workforce development panel.
Employers need to present more than “come in here for eight hours and you’re going to get a check,” she said. They need to invest in employees, train them, value them, and set them up for the next step.
“That kind of investment in an employee, if it’s followed through, creates loyalty,” Joyce said.
Brown said that apprenticeships are important for Virginia specifically, because it is a net exporter of talent. But apprenticeship programs connect employers and employees right off the bat, and there’s a guaranteed job at the end of it.
“Instead of putting them through a two-year training program and hoping that they get a job, they have a job in the region on day one,” Brown said. “It also validates that a lot of people in our community can’t defer work. They can’t defer income for two years to go get training. So that job piece is really important.”
This is helpful for the companies, too, Neal said.
“Apprenticeships are an avenue for employers to grow their own employees in the midst of the great resignation and hiring difficulties,” she said.
The “everybody needs to go to college” mentality is becoming less popular, Morrison said, and apprenticeships are the way of the future.
“COVID made a lot of things unravel, and they’re not going to come back together the way corporate America or higher education thinks they will,” she said. “The apprenticeship model is the natural answer to the need and desire for professional development and people out there looking for work.”