Apprenticeship + college = opportunity

Apprenticeships are making a comeback, often linked to community college classes, according to the Hechinger Report.

In Tacoma, Jesica Bush earns nearly $25 an hour as an apprentice iron worker while taking classes at Bates Technical College. In three years, she’ll earn a journeyman’s card and an associate degree. A seventh-grade drop-out, she completed her GED while serving a prison term for armed robbery,

A state-funded partnership among community colleges, industry and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is turning out skilled workers needed by Boeing and the rest of Seattle’s aerospace industry. Ironworkers are needed  to help build a $4 billion replacement for the floating 520 Bridge over Lake Washington.

Higher education, advocates say, can not only provide these newly minted workers with the critical-thinking skills they need for today’s jobs, but also leave them better prepared and more appealing to employers the next time things get tough.

. . . Machinists these days have to operate sophisticated, computer-numerical-controlled equipment like the $3 million Makino vertical machining center that Seattle apprentice Irwin Downes has learned to run at JWD Machine in Fife, Wash. The company sent Downes and two other apprentices to Ohio to learn how to run the super lathe, which can cut titanium parts on several axes at once under high heat and jet sprays. Now the three are teaching the factory’s other 42 machinists how to use the time-saving machine to make critical parts for the aerospace industry.

Downes, who is 24, also spends four hours in class one night a week at Bates Technical College. “I knew my feeds and speeds for cutting aluminum, but why is it that way?” says Downes, who previously worked in a Chinese fast-food restaurant for a year after high school. “At Bates, they break it down into a math formula and show us where the numbers come from.”

Ironworker apprentices spend 11 months on the job, often doing hard physical labor, and one month taking 6:30 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. classes at Bates during their four-year apprenticeships. In classes, they learn to follow codes and blueprints.

The skilled workforce is aging: Half of Boeing engineers are eligible to retire by 2015, and two-thirds of the company’s entire workforce is within a decade of retirement age.

Despite high demand and high wages, young people don’t want to enter the trades unless they can earn a college degree, says Laura Hopkins, the program’s executive director. “We have to convince their counselors and teachers and parents as well that this is a good career opportunity for them and that if the economy shifts and their industry goes down, they can move on to something else with that college degree.”