Local apprenticeships offer a path to the middle class

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With its gleaming classrooms, sports teams and even a pep squad, the Apprentice School that serves the enormous Navy shipyard here bears little resemblance to a traditional vocational education program.

And that is exactly the point. While the cheerleaders may double as trainee pipe fitters, electricians and insulators, on weekends they’re no different from college students anywhere as they shout for the Apprentice School Builders on the sidelines.

But instead of accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, Apprentice School students are paid an annual salary of $54,000 by the final year of the four-year program, and upon graduation are guaranteed a job with Huntington Ingalls Industries, the military contractor that owns Newport News Shipbuilding.

“There’s a hunger among young people for good, well-paying jobs that don’t require an expensive four-year degree,” said Sarah Steinberg, vice president for global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase. “The Apprentice School is the gold standard of what a high-quality apprenticeship program can be.”

+ Read “A New Look at Apprenticeships as a Path to the Middle Class”

Long regarded by parents, students and many educators as an off ramp from the college track, apprenticeships are getting a fresh look in many quarters. The idea has recently captured the attention of several presidential candidates from both parties, with employer-oriented apprentice programs increasingly seen as a way to appeal to anxious Americans looking for an alternative route to a secure middle-income job.

“We know this works,” said Thomas E. Perez, the labor secretary, describing how big companies have long trained young people in Germany, which has 40 apprentices per 1,000 workers, compared to about three per 1,000 in the United States. “It’s not hard to figure out why the Germans have a youth unemployment rate that is half what it is here.”

The Apprentice School gets more than 4,000 applicants for about 230 spots annually, giving it an admission rate about equivalent to that of Harvard.

Perhaps the greatest reason that students and their parents are showing more interest in apprenticeships is the financial equation. While the typical graduate from a four-year private college in 2014 left campus with a debt load of $31,000 and started work earning about $45,000 a year, Apprentice School students emerge debt free and can make nearly $10,000 more in their first job.

For workers like Oscar Saunders, who is enrolled in the four-year apprentice program and will earn a technician career studies certificate from Tidewater Community College at the end of his program, a middle-class lifestyle is already within reach.

Saunders’ tuition is paid for and he earns a competitive wage throughout. During the last three years of the program, students learn on the job at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. At age 28, he has no student debt and a secured job as an inside machinist.

“This program provides the opportunity to provide a long-term career for myself versus a job that’s dead-end with no full-time benefits,” says Saunders. “I felt like I was approaching an age where I needed to start setting the future not just for myself but for my family. This program prepares me to do so. I love the whole concept of it. They’re taking people who don’t have any experience and giving them an opportunity to create their own future. It’s also nice to be paid while you’re going to school, and we get raises every six months.”

A new partnership between the Apprentice School and Old Dominion University in nearby Norfolk, Va., allows apprentices to earn a bachelor’s degree in five to eight years, paid for by Huntington Ingalls.

Sopheap Bumgarner earned an associate of science in maritime technologies from Tidewater Community College while working as a marine electrician for AMSEC, a subsidiary of Huntington Ingalls Industries since 2009. Bumgarner enrolled in the maritime technology program to enhance her skills and position herself for increased opportunity within her company. She plans to continue studying at Old Dominion University. “I have the background as an electrician, but I want to learn the business aspects so I can move up in the company.”

Mr. Jordan, himself a 1977 graduate of the Apprentice School, notes that other alumni have gone on to earn degrees in medicine, business and other fields, or served as top executives at Huntington Ingalls. Of the current crop, he estimates about 85 percent will eventually take on more senior salaried positions at the company.

But however much Mr. Everett and other administrators try to make the Apprentice School resemble a traditional college, its connection to a military contractor means that in some ways it resembles a top military academy like West Point more than a typical university. For many people, that is a plus.

For example, students receive training in dining etiquette, how to buy a house and how to prepare for job interviews.

Similarly, having a dedicated customer with very deep pockets — the Pentagon — enables Huntington Ingalls to cover the $270,000 cost of training each apprentice.

“The skilled worker is a public good,” said Mr. Petters, who occasionally sounds more like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City and other liberal politicians than an otherwise conservative corporate executive. “Do you give kids swimming lessons or do you take them and throw them off the end of pier and see if they can swim? We believe in swimming lessons.”

He added: “The Apprentice School has been and will forever be the centerpiece of what we do here. I know there’s a red-state view and a blue-state view. This is a shipbuilder’s view.”

Norfolk Naval Shipyard/Tidewater Community College Apprentice Program

Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s Apprentice Program is a four-year training program designed to attract students to federal public service. Students are taken through a vigorous training program combining academics, trade theory and on-the-job experience to become skilled journeymen.

Interested in the program? Visit the website or call NNSY Apprentice Program Training or HRO at 757-396-4777, 757-396-4355, and/or 757-396-7855. Students can also request information from Tidewater Community College by emailing info@tcc.edu.

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