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New ‘Registered Apprenticeship’ program expands career opportunities

Date: Wednesday, October 6, 2021

While other high school students were signing their intent to go to a specific college last spring, one Dubuque student signed his intent to go to work directly out of school as a welder making $42,000. You read that right. And, yes, the student is debt free.

That’s the message Dubuque Community School District would like to get out to students and parents, encouraging them to take a look at the district’s Registered Apprenticeship program.

Debuting the program last year, the program’s creation was obvious to the district and business partners.

“We had a great welding program and businesses wanted welders,” said David Moeller, who is the educational support leader for the program. “We put them together. Before, students would take welding classes, but were left on their own to find a career. Now, we have streamlined the process.”

The U.S. Department of Labor oversees Registered Apprenticeships and has standards and procedures that are consistent throughout the nation. Students in a Registered Apprenticeship program receive related classroom instruction and technical on-the-job training, plus a paycheck from day one. They are actively involved in learning and graduate with a high school diploma and a national, portable credential from the program. Additionally, students may earn other valuable credentials and college credits through their Registered Apprenticeship experience.

High schools and community colleges can partner with local businesses to create a Registered Apprenticeship program in many fields such as health care, IT, advanced manufacturing, finance, hospitality and more. Collaboration between employers and educators is essential to prepare students for rewarding careers and address Iowa’s workforce shortage. Registered Apprenticeship programs help students earn credentials in high-demand jobs in keeping with the Future Ready Iowa goal to have 70 percent of Iowans with education or training beyond high school by 2025.

Dubuque’s Registered Apprenticeship only focuses on welding at this juncture, reflecting the needs of the local business community. Students begin work in their junior year of high school: full time in the summer months, and about 20 hours a week during the school year. Student apprentices start at $12 an hour initially, going up to $13 an hour and, eventually, $14 an hour. Wages go up considerably after a student graduates and completes the Registered Apprenticeship program.

“Local businesses wanted to work with us regarding welding and we had a great program, so it turned out to be a great fit that way,” Moeller said.

Registered Apprenticeships means much more than developing the know-how of welding. Students develop what’s called universal constructs -- such as critical thinking -- while working their apprenticeships.

“Students develop employability skills,” Moeller said. “The student learns how to effectively communicate with the employer. When on the worksite, they learn how to focus on a topic, develop an ability to work with others, the ability to troubleshoot. It’s all the 21st century soft skills needed to be successful.

“Students also learn that the number one thing to do is show up for work.”

Moeller expects the program to grow exponentially in the coming years. They are beginning to reach out to eighth graders when they are registering for ninth-grade classes, making sure they are familiar with and consider the welding program.

“With the need in the manufacturing sector, I see this growing,” he said. “I envision growing the number of partners, too, so we can have a larger pool from which students can choose.”

One thing Dubuque learned along the way is how important communication is with the student and student’s parents to avoid disappointment on the behalf of both the student and the business.

“We need to have a strong level of communication with students and parents,” Moeller said. “We had one student who came into the Registered Apprenticeship program and decided within the first week it wasn’t for him. That underscores the importance of getting the students out to the worksite to observe before they enter the Registered Apprenticeship program. It’s important to make sure parents truly understand, as well.

“It’s a simple concept, but it’s a day in, day out commitment to make sure you are communicating. You also have to make sure your communication is strong with employers.”

In the immediate future, Moeller looks to make the celebration of students signing onto the Registered Apprenticeship program more visible.

“It’s precisely the same concept as students signing their intent to go to a specific college,” he said. “It’s something to be celebrated.”