Anthony Garcia is a second-year apprentice technician at Lawrence Companies in Botetourt County, just outside Roanoke, where he customizes vehicles for corporate and government clients. He has two welding certifications. When he finishes his apprenticeship in summer 2025, he’ll receive a nationally recognized journeyworker card to prove his skills.
Garcia is just 19.
He launched his career in the Youth Registered Apprenticeship Program offered at more than 30 school divisions across the state. The program connects high school students in career and technical education, or CTE, programs with employers willing to take on young workers to train them in fields ranging from machining and construction to dental assisting and culinary arts.
Apprentices learn skills on the job site while they earn an hourly wage, making the experience attractive for young people eyeing the CTE route instead of a traditional college experience.
But the program benefits employers, too. Their willingness to bring on young workers can help attract employees when job opportunities are still plentiful.
And in an environment where apprenticeships as an alternative to traditional higher education have widespread support, the state program is all but destined to grow — feeding the jobs pipeline that Gov. Glenn Youngkin claims is essential to Virginia’s economy.
How youth registered apprenticeships work
The idea for Virginia’s youth apprenticeship program dates back to 2015, when Kathleen Eddington, who had just started her role as assistant director of the Division of Registered Apprenticeship for Virginia, noticed a gap between students and the workforce. There were opportunities for young adults to start apprenticeships, but students attending high school CTE programs were struggling to find work to satisfy their education requirements.
“We had a completely untapped workforce. We weren’t connecting to employers,” she said.
The apprenticeship office launched a pilot program in 2017 with five school divisions. Four continued past the first year. Now, 34 divisions participate across the state.
The Youth Registered Apprenticeship Program can give students an advantage for careers where they need to complete at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job training before getting their journeyworker certificate. They can start part-time with an employer and continue on full-time with that same company once they graduate. When they complete their requirements, they can advance at the same firm or move on.
“It helps them see the options for their careers, whether it’s in the skilled trade or in starting and running a company,” Eddington said.
The Division of Registered Apprenticeship has consultants around the state who work with school divisions as well as with employers interested in hiring students.
Roanoke County was one of the pilot sites back in 2017. Jason Suhr, director of CTE for the division, knew of companies that were in “dire straits” trying to hire for skilled roles. He also knew that the county had many students who were career-focused.
“That didn’t mean they were never going to pursue higher education of some sort,” Suhr said. “But they wanted to get out and get some experience on the job.”
The program has been so successful that Roanoke and Salem schools have joined in with Roanoke County to streamline efforts to match students with employers and manage the experience.
High school students who are already enrolled in CTE programs at their school typically get started as apprentices in their junior or senior year.
The process is similar to a typical process of applying for a job. It includes attending an employer showcase in the winter to learn about participating companies. Then, employers invite students and their parents to their facilities for a tour. Only then do students start to complete applications and attend interviews. The employers make offers and the students evaluate their offers to determine where they want to sign.
Most of the 44 new apprentices in the Roanoke regional group attended a signing day in May to officially kick off their commitments to 14 sponsor businesses.
Suhr said the three-division partnership is just around the point of having enough apprenticeships available for all the students who are interested.
Lawrence Companies, which has divisions for moving, freight, equipment and service vehicle customization, has seven YRA apprentices this year. Four of them just signed on in May. The company offers apprenticeships for diesel mechanics, auto body repair, upfitting and trailer repair, with programs ranging from two to four years.
Shortly after Morgan Byrd joined the company as a human resources generalist, her department started discussing how to attract technicians and mechanics. “They’re not exactly falling out of the sky,” she said. A quick Google search introduced her to the YRA program operating in the area.
That was January 2022. By that summer, Lawrence Companies had its first three apprentices.
Byrd has since added apprenticeship program manager to her title. She works closely with the students’ schools to tailor their hours to their academic schedules. While enrolled in high school, the apprentices work between 12 and 20 hours a week, she said. In the summer, they can work full time. Of the apprentices who started this summer, three graduated in 2023 and one is a rising senior.
Byrd explained that to get started, Lawrence Companies had to submit a curriculum for what its programs would cover. But after getting those initial plans approved, running the program “is pretty cut and dry.”
Apprentices shadow their mentors or complete tasks, and at the end of each day check a rubric to see how to categorize their time. If a mentor finds their apprentice is falling behind in gaining experience on a particular aspect of the job, they figure out how to adjust their time.
Byrd said the most rewarding part of the program is seeing students come in energized and ready to learn and work. At the same time, she’s seen some of their experienced mentors, who may be later in their careers, “soften up” a little bit as they take pride and ownership in their apprentices’ success.
Apprenticeships expose students to new career pathways
Garcia started his apprenticeship in summer 2022, shortly after graduating from Patrick Henry High School.
When Garcia started high school, he said he thought he’d end up working in construction but feared it would become boring and repetitive. He took automotive classes in high school. But it wasn’t until he started at Lawrence Companies that he discovered welding and realized he could use the experience he already had with automotive tools and build upon them with welding.
He said welding is fun because the situation is always different depending on the metals involved and the scope of the project. Byrd said Garcia was naturally gifted when he started trying out welding under supervision in the shop.
Garcia enrolled in an accelerated welding certification program at Virginia Western Community College at the recommendation of a friend. For almost six months, he attended class all day three days a week, working at Lawrence Companies on Thursdays and Fridays. He came away with two welding certifications and plans to go back to earn more.
“I don’t have any college debt,” Garcia said. “I’m going straight to work, making money and already building my future.” He lives with his parents in Vinton. They’ve supported his career path and offered to help him financially when he scaled back his apprenticeship hours to take classes at VWCC, but he said he ended up not having to ask them for help.
Renewed interest in apprenticeships may propel state program
The tradition of learning a skilled trade via apprenticeship is gaining renewed attention as the standard path of attending a four-year college declines in popularity.
Nationally, expanding free job training programs including registered apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs is one of the key tenets of President Joe Biden’s jobs policy. In fall 2022, the Biden administration launched the Apprenticeship Ambassador Initiative, a national network to strengthen apprenticeship programs.
In July, the federal Department of Labor announced the latest funding for state grants to expand registered apprenticeships in high-demand industries. Of a total $65 million, Virginia received more than $927,000.
Apprenticeship programs also have support of Virginia’s governor. Youngkin has stressed the importance of building Virginia’s job training pipeline to meet employer needs across the state, especially with Virginia’s workforce shrinking by about 125,000 people since the pandemic.
The state has streamlined its occupational licensing process to accept out-of-state licenses for 85 occupations, to make it easier for new residents to begin working right away. And since July, state agencies no longer require degrees for 90% of classified positions.
Virginia’s youth apprenticeship program doesn’t guarantee that young employees will stick around for their entire careers, or even that they’ll complete their apprenticeship hours. Employers handle the expenses of training apprentices, though some grant money is available through the state.
Despite the risks, employers hope that it will provide much needed exposure for the various opportunities that are available within their firms.
“Anthony’s decorating his resume,” Byrd said. And if he moves on after his three-year stint, “We’ll miss him and hope that he comes back one day. But it’s not realistic to keep employees for life, especially at a young age.”
She plans to continue growing the YRA program for young people who follow in Garcia’s footsteps. Lawrence Companies wants to add one apprentice for each of its five programs each year. The company would also like to add apprenticeships to its Ashland and Waynesboro locations.
Getting the company name out there as an option for students is the hardest part, Byrd said. The company has hosted several field trips for schools to visit and see what each program has to offer. “We’re trying to make a name so that we have more of a pool of applicants as we go forward with the program,” Byrd said.
Suhr, who manages Roanoke County’s student involvement, would like to add not only more employers to the regional program but also additional school divisions where there may be some overlap in employer offerings, for instance in the Lynchburg area.
Suhr has been a champion for the Roanoke-area collaboration and frequently talks with other school divisions to offer guidance for starting YRA programs.
He’s able to explain that getting registered isn’t an arduous process, and offering apprenticeships provides a viable way for students to connect with local employment opportunities.
“We’re really stressing the need to keep our students here. They need to know about the opportunities and companies need to get the word out that there’s awesome opportunities in our area.”
He said that’s a message that resonates well across the state.