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2012 November 12 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS : Apprenticeship Programs See Increased Demand

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — The number of carpenters, electricians and other workers learning skilled trades is on its way up again.

Apprenticeship programs are reporting increased capacity and demand this year, bolstered by an improving economy and big projects under way that call for specialized skills.

“When the recession hit, we got slammed,” said Ron Simko, area training director for the Indiana/Kentucky Regional Council of Carpenters apprenticeship program. “Work is picking up again.”

The number of new apprentices in the Lafayette Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee’s program, headquartered at Ivy Tech Community College, has doubled over the past year. Alcoa Inc. in August took in its largest apprentice class at the Lafayette plant. The Indiana /Kentucky Regional Council of Carpenters is trying to grow its apprenticeship program in the area.

The local activity illustrates nationwide growth for participation in registered apprenticeship programs, which are “training system(s) that combine job-related technical instruction with structured on-the-job learning experiences,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Last year, the Labor Department reported 1,400 new apprenticeship programs nationwide and nearly 130,000 new workers entered the system, according to the Journal & Courier.

The numbers aren’t as high as they were in 2007, but they’re on their way back up. The number of new apprentices in nonmilitary programs grew 17.4 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year.

Program coordinators say the activity is a reflection of improved industry confidence.

There are 30 registered apprenticeship sponsors in Tippecanoe County representing 19 occupations, according to the Labor Department.

“We’re seeing numbers going back up, and all around things are brighter,” said Carol Korty, coordinator of the Lafayette Electrical JATC.

Sixteen apprentices entered the Electrical JATC program in August, up from about eight last year.

Korty said demand is growing in alternative sectors. “We’re trying to stay on top of the technology in the solar, wind turbine and green energy sectors.”

Work at Purdue University for carpenter apprentices remained steady through the recession, said Chuck Wheeldon, who teaches the carpenter apprentices at Ivy Tech, but other sectors are beginning to move again as bigger construction projects begin in the area.

Growing the carpenter apprenticeship program hasn’t been as easy as Simko and Wheeldon had hoped. They said they were disappointed overall with the caliber of applicants.

“They either don’t follow through or don’t pass the test,” Simko said. Applicants are tested for their aptitude in key skills, including math and teamwork.

Simko said applicants’ ears perk up once they find out about pay.

Apprentices affiliated with United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America Local 215 make between $14 and $22 per hour, not including benefits, if they were hired after June 2012. After completing the program, the hourly wage is $26.56.

Alcoa Inc.’s local program also is becoming more robust thanks to its latest $90 million investment in Lafayette.

The announcement that the company will build an aluminum plant that will begin production in 2014 means an increased need for workers. Construction started this spring.

Seventy-five jobs will be added to Alcoa’s workforce of more than 700 when the 115,000-square-foot plant starts running.

Carol Paul of Alcoa, who went through the apprenticeship program in 1978, said the company deployed its largest class at the plant in August.

“We’re gearing up for that,” said Paul, who sits on Ivy Tech’s industrial technology advisory board along with officials from Subaru of Indiana Automotive Inc., Fairfield Manufacturing Co., Caterpillar Inc. and other local companies. ``We’ve had a running program for the last five or six years, but it hasn’t been huge in numbers.’’

Twenty-one people are in the latest group of apprentices. More than half are new hires. There were 350 applicants for the position.

Paul said it is usually more preferable for the company to get its apprentices from within the plant.

“You can’t just hire the type of craftspeople we need off the street because of the equipment we have,” she said. “We have a better turnout if we can train our own people.’’

The Electrical JATC, Regional Council of Carpenters and Alcoa programs all are affiliated with Ivy Tech Community College. But they are organized separately and have different requirements to obtain an associate degree.

Paul said working with Ivy Tech benefits industry and the apprentices.

“For Alcoa, it’s getting the quality of craftspeople that we need to maintain our equipment,” Paul said. “For (the apprentices), it’s time and work toward a degree.”

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