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HCC apprentice program opens doors for students

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Wednesday, November 22, 2023   

By Ramona Schindelheim for WorkingNation.
Broadcast version by Brett Peveto for Maryland News Connection reporting for the WorkingNation-Public News Service Collaboration

From skilled trades to health care to information technology, these are just some in a wide range of industries facing a common challenge: they don’t have enough workers.

Employers are feeling the squeeze. A 2023 Manpower survey shows 75% of employers in the U.S. are facing difficulty finding skilled talent with an estimated 68 workers for every 100 open jobs in the United States.

Finding and training workers with specific skills is a priority and a growing number of businesses are turning to apprenticeships to provide hands-on training and build a future workforce. And they are partnering with community colleges as part of the solution.

Preparing for the Future Workforce Through Apprenticeships

Howard Community College (HCC), for one, is embracing the role. HCC, based in Columbia, Maryland, offers associate degrees and certifications, with more than 20,000 students a year.

“As the only higher education institution in Howard County, we will play a huge, monumental role in getting people skilled up quickly and to work,” says Daria Willis, Ph.D., president of Howard Community College.

To address the demand for a skilled workforce, it currently offers apprenticeship programs in ten occupations – with surgical technologist, IT support technician, plumber, child care professional, and construction manager among them.

More apprenticeships are in the pipeline and HCC plans to build a Workforce Development and Skilled Trades Center on campus to be completed by 2026 with backing from the community.

Willis explains: “As we do the design for this, we are trying to make sure that we have enough welding bays and automotive capacity. And we are really looking at solar and wind technology, all the up-and-coming things. The wave of the future is changing, and we want to be a part of that.”

For Willis, it’s part of a wider effort to realign career pathways to careers in a county that ranks as one of the most affluent in the country. “Most of our community members are highly educated. They send their kids to really good colleges, four-year schools that are snooty-wooty and all that good stuff, which is great.

“But there’s also an underlying group of people who don’t have that access. And even in those more snooty households, there are kids that just don’t want to go to the four-year school and they never really had an avenue in Howard county to do that,” she explains.

A Hunger for Skilled Trades Training

Until recent years, HCC’s focus had been on preparing students to transfer to a four-year college or university. In 2019, though, it changed the model to add apprenticeships. In the skilled trades, HVAC (heat, ventilation and air conditioning) apprenticeships were first offered, followed by electrical and plumbing apprenticeships.

According to HCC, there were roughly a dozen students to start and that number now tops one hundred.

“What it did for me was to really counter the argument that said in Howard County, we don’t do that. My predecessor used to say ‘we are a boutique college, we don’t do that. Our county, our students don’t do that.’ No, that’s not true. Our county does do that and there was actually a hunger for it,” says Minah Woo, vice president of Workforce Innovation and Strategic Partnerships at Howard Community College.

Beyond the need from employers to find skilled workers, apprenticeship programs can also open doors for students facing barriers to attend college and learn those skills because of tuition costs. Woo notes a rising poverty level in a county known for its wealth. “You need to have more than one pathway to success, one pathway to a career. We as a college need to provide them this other pathway,” adds Woo.

Breaking New Ground with IT Apprenticeships

HCC’s location – less than an hour from Washington, D.C. – is also providing some unique opportunities. There’s a demand for skilled workers at companies in Howard County working with government customers.

AT&T is among them. In 2020, it launched its first cohort of IT apprenticeships with Howard Community College, touting it as the first of its kind in the state of Maryland. “It’s just been the best decision we could have ever made,” says Brenda Anderson, associate director of Project Management at AT&T.

“By us creating this apprenticeship, we’re molding our own talent, we’re developing hopefully career-long employees by taking this risk on them. And we have gotten some superstars out of this.

“It is just a way to give back to the community in general, but to really help some of this younger workforce get developed because eventually the workforce is so saturated with older people that are going to retire,” explains Anderson.

She says the IT apprenticeship takes two years, on average, to complete with students taking between 18 and 24 credits and working roughly 20 hours a week while getting paid around $21 an hour to start.
They do not complete an associate degree but instead work toward industry-based certificates that include Security Plus certification.

Because the company works with government agencies that can include access to sensitive information, apprentices must obtain a high-level government security clearance before being hired full-time. The process, says Anderson, can take an average of 18 to 24 months. To date, Anderson says she’s hired 80 apprentices with 30 to 40 being hired full-time. The rest, she says, are waiting for their clearances and doing other work in the meantime.

Apprentices, are mainly hired into entry-level positions as hardware technicians, network engineers, and systems administrators and pegs the usual starting salary in the ballpark of the mid- $60,000 range, depending on specific roles.

Anderson now speaks with other employers about the benefits of apprenticeship programs. “I think a lot of industries and a lot of employers don’t realize that this could be an option for them,” she explains. “I know I’ve spoken at a lot of panels and in a lot of meetings and just kind of educating the employers on what’s involved.” She adds. “Is it a risk? Sure. But is it worth the risk? You betcha,” Anderson concludes.

Getting a Foot in the Door

One Howard Community College student who secured her full-time job through the apprentice program is Amrita Assim. The mother of two started attending HCC part-time after her family moved to Maryland. She had earned an associate degree in Business Administration in California, but says she had a hard time landing a job there and was looking for a new career. She started learning about cybersecurity and focused on networking.

“I started to hear about how much they want more women to be in this field so I started taking classes and enjoyed them,” Assim explains. When she received information about the IT apprenticeship program, she didn’t hesitate. “I thought: ‘Why not sign up?’ And I was chosen,” she adds.

She now works as a systems administrator, is working to grow her career, and wants to return to school to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in cybersecurity.

“The apprentice program is such an easy way to get your foot into a workplace for students because, in general, it’s hard for students to find a job these days with all the experience they’re asking for kids to have just coming out of college. I think this is a great opportunity for anyone,” she adds.

Providing opportunity and breaking down barriers is what Howard Community College’s President Daria Willis is striving to deliver. “I used to attend a church in Texas called ‘the church without walls.’ I love that concept and when I think about community colleges, we need to be those institutions without walls, without barriers, to give access to everyone who wants it.”

Ramona Schindelheim wrote this article for WorkingNation.

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