By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Madison and St. Clair County officials are working together on a $500,000 grant proposal that would help increase their market for apprenticeships.
The plan comes in the wake of each of them being certified by the U.S. Department of Labor as a Registered Apprenticeship Program Intermediary Sponsor a few months ago. The designation allows the counties to work with local employers to help them hire and train people who will received occupational credentials from the Department of Labor upon completion of the apprenticeship program.
Tony Fuhrmann, director of Madison County Employment and Training, said his office has been meeting with businesses and others to build the program.
“We have several employers committing apprenticeship slots. We are working with a couple of additional education entities to provide the training. The intermediary (label) gives us the ability to work with local employers to set up standards for apprenticeships, what the requirements are, and the timeframes.”
Previously, this would have to go through the Department of Labor, which funds the county department.
“As an intermediary, we have the ability to do all that at a local level and it streamlines it,” Fuhrman said.
The joint application is for an Apprenticeship Expansion grant funneled through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Fuhrman said Madison and St. Clair counties are “a little bit ahead of the curve,” because federal officials have expressed a commitment to having more preregistered intermediaries. St. Clair County became the state’s first Local Workforce Development Area to be certified.
There are 26 Workforce Areas in Illinois. Madison and Bond county make up Area 22. St. Clair County is part of Area 24, comprised also of Washington, Clinton, Monroe and Randolph counties.
“We’re trying to use that momentum to get this grant funding so we can actually do more promotion and marketing,” Fuhrmann said.
A second piece of the grant involves hiring an apprenticeship navigator, “which would bring that person onto one of our staffs to work with businesses to try to put the pieces together for more apprenticeship programs. That would be their specific and full-time role,” he said.
Fuhrman said he preferred to release more specifics on possible program participants until after a decision is made on the grant.
“If it’s awarded it will become public knowledge. There is a manufacturing group we’re working with, a couple of employers, and in health care, an employer there as well,” he said.
He did say that Lewis and Clark Community College is involved in the efforts.
The grant decision is likely to be made before the end of the year.
“They’re pretty aggressive on apprenticeship programs. That’s the buzzword from the White House. They’re big on apprenticeships and it’s being driven that way,” Fuhrmann said.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, visited Lewis and Clark College last month as part of a Midwest swing promoting workforce development programs. The event was to help promote the president’s Council for the American Worker.
The U.S. Congress and the president’s administration are working to improve both private and public workforce training opportunities.
Fuhrmann said there the skills gap is so big because it’s been allowed to build over time.
“Manufacturing went down for so many years, nobody went into it. Now those people in the manufacturing areas are getting ready to retire. There is no backfill currently. Part of the issue is, at the high schools a lot of the voc-ed programs got funding cut out. There is a bigger emphasis on college prep at a lot of high schools. There is no pipeline there.”
An initiative driven by Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, called Manufacture Your Future/Craft Your Future, has been addressing the issue the last couple of years.
“There has been a big push in this area to get in front of junior high and high school kids and their parents to encourage their careers,” Fuhrman said.
Madison County Employment and Training also is active in career fairs. October is Manufacturer’s Month in Illinois, and a big manufacturer’s day is set Oct. 12 at Southwestern Illinois College in Granite City.
“This year, they’re looking at 1,200 high school kids being there,” Fuhrmann said
Part of the biggest problem with young people’s aspiration is their parents, he said.
“When they think manufacturing, they think back to the place Grandpa was — the dirty, grungy, hard work. Nowadays, a lot of it is computer guided — it’s a different world. I don’t think kids realize that.”
The apprenticeship grant application is one of a few things that Madison County is working on with St. Clair County.
“It just makes sense,” Fuhrmann said. “The issues we have are similar, the people we deal with are similar.”
He noted that both he and St. Clair County Workforce Development Coordinator Rick Stubblefield went to Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville, which aided working bond.
Regardless of the grant outcome, the county plans to move forward on the topic and look for funding opportunities. But Sarah Lorio, Madison County’s work-based learning coordinator, said she likes to “think positive.”
“When we do get this grant, we’ll really be able to hit the ground with outreach and marketing. Right now, we’re just doing the best we can with what we’ve got. The state is not providing us with anything.”
Fuhrmann explained: “All of our money comes from the federal Department of Labor and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is the pass-through agency. We get zero money from the county.”
The apprenticeship possibilities are exciting, he said.
“Seeing business, education, providers, us, all trying to work together — the partnership is just the starting point and it will grow from there.”