LIMA — In 2015, millennials surpassed Generation X and the baby-boom generation to become the largest share of the American workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
As older workers retire and a younger generation takes over the labor force, industry leaders are developing new strategies to attract the millennial generation, defined as adult workers aged 18 to 34.
These strategies range widely and with varying degrees of success, but one industry is using a century-old program that officials say is still attractive for young people wanting to learn a trade without going broke.
With student loan debt reaching the $1 trillion mark, leaders in the skilled-trade unions are promoting apprenticeship programs as a way to earn money, and even college credit, while learning on the job.
Mike Knisley, business manager of the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Service Technicians union Local 776, said he is starting to see a “renaissance” of young people who are looking into the skilled trades.
“For 30-plus years, it’s been drilled into everybody’s head that you need a college degree,” Knisley said. “We can also help them with that with our partnership with local colleges, but we’re also seeing kids who are looking for a return on their investment.
“They’re starting to ask themselves, ‘is it worth it to spend $60,000 or $80,000 on a college degree?’ So we’re seeing young people gravitate toward the trades.”
UA Local 776 offers a five-year apprenticeship program that includes paid, on-the-job training and classroom work for people wanting to learn a skilled trade. The program is privately-funded and free to those who participate, allowing graduates to start their career debt-free.
Though the apprenticeship program has been around for decades, Knisley said it is perhaps even more attractive to young workers nowadays because of the student debt problem.
“I think people are realizing that kids need other options besides college,” he said. “The public has realized the value the union trades bring to the area. We still need people to go to college to be doctors and lawyer and engineers, but we still need people to build things for the country as well.”
Jerry Dickrede, training director of the Lima Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, said their organization offers a five-year program that’s similar to the one at UA Local 776.
It features 900 hours of classroom instruction and 8,000 hours of on-the-job training, as well as an opportunity to earn college credit. He said the program is free for those who complete it and stay in the electrical trade industry for at least five years after graduating.
“It gives them an opportunity to earn money while they learn,” Dickrede said. “If you go to college you may learn to be a lawyer or accountant or whatever it is, but you really don’t experience what it is until you graduate.
“With this, they get paid, they’ve built a pension, they have health care the whole way through, and when they’re done they have no college debt and are close to a two-year degree.”
To promote their apprenticeship programs, Knisley and Dickrede said they are ramping up their outreach efforts. They speak to students at local vocational schools, partner with guidance counselors and advertise with OhioMeansJobs, along with establishing a presence on the internet.
The JATC and UA Local 776 have also expanded, opening up new training facilities in Lima. The JATC’s new training center opened in May, and UA Local 776 will cut the ribbon on its new facility Thursday.
With modern apprenticeship programs offering industry-specific credentials, classroom training and college degrees, Knisley said there is no better time to learn a skilled trade.
“Every year the training program seems to get bigger, so I think now we’re seeing a resurgence,” Knisley said. “It’s really refreshing to see, and it’s great for our workforce development.”
Reach John Bush at 567-242-0456 or on Twitter @bush_lima.