SIOUX CITY | The first Monday of every September is for workers.
It’s set aside as a day to honor their contributions to the country's social and economic well-being. The nation’s first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City in 1882.
But for thousands of years before that day, workers toiled across the globe. From the time ancient Romans designed some of the first complex sewage systems to colonial times, when there was a blacksmith in every New England town, workers have passed on skills essential to societies.
This way of preparing people for work, called an apprenticeship, has proved a successful model and boasts alumni including historic American figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Henry Ford.
Today, apprenticeships offer workers ways to build careers using on-the-job training that can’t be duplicated in the classroom.
“You get out of school, and you’re going to know quite a bit, but every day that you’re going to work, you’re going to learn something new,” said Travis Hicks, a second-year apprentice at C.W. Suter Services, a Soux City heating and cooling ventilation business. “It’s always a different situation, and the technology’s changing all the time.”
Hicks, 27, of Merrill, Iowa, said he spent a year taking general education courses at Western Iowa Tech Community College with a career in mass media in mind, but he said his decision to enroll in WIT’s apprenticeship program has made him more marketable. “I can go anywhere in the world and get a job,” he said. “I could go to Omaha tomorrow, and I would get a job that same day.”
Nearly half a million apprentices work in the U.S. in industries that range from construction and manufacturing to health care and telecommunications. Many skilled workers in Iowa, including common tradesmen like plumbers and electricians, are required by state law to complete an apprenticeship program before they can practice.
Whether it’s through a school, a private employer or a union, apprentices are required to complete a certain number of hours in a classroom and on the job. Iowa apprentices must complete an equivalent of 144 classroom hours and 8,000 hours on the job before they can obtain a journeyman’s certificate, the apprentice’s equivalent to a bachelor’s degree.
“It’s very structured. If you’re sick for a couple weeks in a row, you’re in trouble,” said Daniel Lewis, owner of Lewis Electric Co., in Sioux City. “You’ve got to make it to class.”
Lewis, whose first job was doing construction as a 16-year-old, said he typically takes on one apprentice each year. His apprentices usually go to class at night during the winter and work during the day all year long.
“We range anywhere from farm kids to people who have been through class and have had a couple of years of community college,” Lewis said. “But I would figure 90 percent of what you’re going to learn you will learn on the job.”
Bill Koontz, a project manager for WIT’s Corporate College who helps connect employers with apprentices, said there would be a constant turnover of workers without apprenticeships. The program is beneficial for employers too, he said, because it offers a steady stream of applicants who have been educated with the latest technology in the classroom.
“Our apprenticeship programs are filling that void,” he said. “Our entry-level individuals that were getting out of our community colleges and tech colleges are expanding.”
A 2008 U.S. Department of Labor study showed that 97 percent of employers would recommend an apprenticeship program to others in their field and 80 percent said an apprenticeship’s greatest advantage is helping meet employers’ demand for skilled workers.
Lewis said his retention of apprentices has been solid, especially since his company pays for their schooling and offers health and retirement benefits.
“The toughest thing right now, I’d say, is the kids’ attitudes that the grass is always greener,” he said. “Because you’re going through an apprenticeship, you’re not going through the best of pay.”
The same Labor Department study showed an apprentice’s annual earning potential to be $44,928, higher than that of someone with an associate degree. In 2006, the average starting wage was $13.02 an hour for an apprentice in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Labor, and the average wage upon completion was $23.95.
“The apprenticeship programs are not hurting anybody,” Koontz said. “It’s truly a win-win. I don’t see the state of Iowa going away from it anytime soon. As long as the economy is good, apprenticeships aren’t going anywhere.”
For Hicks, his apprenticeship at C.W. Suter has proved to be invaluable, both for him and for those in the community he serves.
“You might go to Hy-Vee, and they’ve got $90,000 worth of produce that’s going to get tossed if you don’t get that A/C rack up and running,” he said. “So you get thrown in and you start making those connections you learned in school. You’re asking for help and you’re getting it.”