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Apprenticeship Programs: Tried, True and Effective

A centuries-old method of training skilled workers could help supply ports and their maritime partners with the modern workforce they need.

* By Mary Lou Jay *

Apprenticeships have long been a well-established and well-respected route to good jobs, but for a time they fell out of favor because of the perception that college was the only route to a successful career. But recently there’s been a resurgence of interest in apprenticeships in the United States, with 10,800 new programs established between 2013 and 2018.

That could be good news for the ports and the companies that work in and around them. Approximately one-quarter of the U.S. workforce will be over age 55 in 2020, so ports and their partners could be facing more than 7 million job vacancies over the next two decades. Hiring replacements won’t be easy; ports, like other industries, are finding it difficult to recruit employees with the required skills.

To boost their employee base, several ports have already launched or reinvigorated their apprenticeship programs for skilled workers. The Port of San Francisco participates in the city’s machinists’ apprenticeship program, developed in conjunction with the local labor union. The apprentices go through four, one-year rotations in different city departments, including the port.

Vigor Industries, a ship building, fabrication and repair company, offers a workforce program that offers some of the same benefits of an apprenticeship program. To fill a skills gap for highly-trained, entry-level welders in the shipyard sector, Vigor approached local community colleges in Portland and Seattle to partner in creating a maritime welding program.

Vigor bore the initial cost to build and outfit on-site training space in its Seattle and Portland locations. “We lease the space back to the community colleges at modest rates, provide scrap steel and aluminum to support the programs and assist the colleges with other maritime-specific training, like fall protection, fire watch, etc.,” said Sue Haley, the company’s executive vice president of human resources and administration. “We also use these centers to provide skill upgrades for current employees and to certify new welders.”

She added, “Vigor has already benefitted greatly from hiring welding program graduates, many of whom have successfully advanced internally to other positions.”

The Port of Seattle determined that one of its greatest needs in the coming years would be for skilled construction workers. In 2017, it coordinated with other area municipalities and public agencies to begin a Regional Public Owners (RPO) Construction Trades Partnership. The goal is to bring women and people of color, particularly youth, into pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship training opportunities. The pilot apprenticeship program trained 35 individuals in various construction trades, and the port and its RPO partners are continuing this initiative.

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