Apprenticeship programs draw ‘highly driven’ young people, support Kansas businesses

Westar Energy’s apprenticeship programs, like the lineman program shown here, are highly competitive and popular. (Thad Allton/The Capital-Journal)

Apprenticeships offer a financially practical way to train for careers with excellent pay and opportunities, and at the same time, they build a trained workforce for employers, many of whom are challenged by a tight labor market.

 

That message resonated clearly at a Monday afternoon event celebrating Apprenticeship Week in the State of Kansas, Nov. 13-19, with a proclamation from Gov. Sam Brownback honoring the role on-the-job training opportunities provide for Kansans and for the state’s workforce.

During an event at the Westar Energy Professional Development Center, 801 N.E. US-24 highway, officials from the Kansas Department of Commerce, local unions and Westar Energy gathered to celebrate the way apprenticeships bolster the state’s economy. More than 1,750 apprentices are registered in the state of Kansas, working for 243 employers, according to KDOC.

Just over 100 of those apprentices work for Westar Energy, where director of safety and training Marc Welsh said they are “critical” to the company, which benefits by maintaining a well-trained workforce. Like many industries, Westar is facing the retirement of workers throughout the company and needs to be on top of training the next generation of electrical workers.

“The key is to try to stay ahead, because a large part of the success of our apprenticeship program hinges on having quality journeymen in the program they can learn from,” he said.

The electric company gets numerous applicants for its nine state-registered apprenticeship programs, Welsh said, and it is competitive — so much so that it seems as if some type of work or training after high school is necessary in order to be accepted. Interest in apprenticeships is changing among young people.

“The challenge is getting a generation that was brought up differently, that doesn’t use their hands as often, to learn how to do crafts that require that,” Welsh said, adding that he sees “highly driven younger folks” going down the apprenticeship path rather than the college path.

That is one of the challenges faced by apprenticeship programs statewide, said Mike Beene, executive director of KDOC workforce services.

“We as a society have been stuck in this college education environment,” he said. “If a person can learn a craft or a skill or even competencies associated with a job, and have that model of earning a paycheck while you’re learning, I just think it makes sense for Kansas businesses as a way to attract and grow talent.”

Although most apprenticeship programs statewide have been trade-oriented, Beene said he has been hearing from less traditional fields — manufacturing, information technology and health care — interested in the programs in the past year.

Ultimately, he expects growth in apprenticeships to continue, as his department and businesses take on the stigma that is sometimes associated with their work.

“The reality is, we as a society aren’t educated about what a true apprenticeship program is, how you can advance, not only in skills but also career and pay,” Beene said. “It’s a great opportunity for those individuals who maybe aren’t college bound to really embed themselves in a career that could last them a lifetime.”

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