Building on existing programs, a coalition of educators and employers is preparing to launch a new apprenticeship program with a summit next week.
Employers, students, their families and community members are invited to learn about the Tennessee Valley Youth Apprenticeships during the event at the Pellissippi State Community College campus in Friendsville.
Organizers hope students as young as seventh grade will attend to discover how they can “earn while they learn” starting in high school, and that employers will see how they can be part of developing a skilled workforce pipeline in Blount County.
The program will focus on five high-demand career fields for the area: information technology, manufacturing/STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), health science, construction and culinary jobs.
Although Maryville City Schools received a state grant to launch the program, Blount County Schools and Alcoa City Schools are on the steering committee as well, and the apprenticeships will be open to students from any of the three districts.
The name, Tennessee Valley Youth Apprenticeships, was chosen with an eye toward further expansion in the years to come.
An $80,000 state grant to fund the program was awarded to MCS in mid-July, and a website for it is under construction at https://mhs.maryville-schools.org/about-mhs/tvya.
Eventually apprentice jobs will be posted on the website, and student applicants will have to compete for openings, with employers making the final decision.
“This really grew out of work that we’ve been doing for several years, with Blount Partnership and the other school systems and everything that would be building up workforce development,” said Amy Vagnier, assistant director of Maryville City Schools, noting that Pellissippi State and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology also are part of the coalition.
While the public schools and employers already offer semester long work-based learning opportunities, the apprenticeships would be more comprehensive and include “scalable wages.”
Students would know when they begin that their earnings are guaranteed to increase as they reach certain benchmarks, such as mastering job competencies or earning industry certifications.
Donna Wortham, assistant principal at Maryville High School, said apprenticeships should appeal to a consumer-savvy generation that sees many of their parents still paying off college loans.
She hopes parents will see that an apprenticeship “gives their child a competitive edge in the job market.”
The two-year apprenticeships are designed to start in the summer after a student’s junior year of high school. To launch the program this year, at least one senior is expected to start an information technology internship.
However, educators want families to start thinking about the opportunities in middle school, so students can take all the courses they need and want, and still be free to work half a day their senior year.
Participating in the summit will be representatives from Charleston, South Carolina, which grew an apprenticeship program in four years from 13 students to more than 100, with 18 career pathways.
“A lot of what they’ve been successful with we are trying to tweak and model to fit our community,” Vagnier said.
“We’re confident in the success we’re going to have and the buy in, and that snowball is going to be rapid,” MCS Director Mike Winstead said.
A representative from the state Department of Labor also will be on hand to answer employers’ questions.
The TN Valley Apprenticeships are being developed to provide a wide range of support to employers and students. For example, educators will help train workplace mentors, and students will attend an apprenticeship boot camp at Pellissippi State Community College to learn skills such as how to accept constructive feedback.
While the schools are looking for employers of all sizes to accept apprentices, they also will act as employers.
“We’re not only going to provide students for an apprenticeship, but we’re going to be on the other side as an employer also providing apprenticeship opportunities for our students,” Winstead said, noting the schools have culinary and information technology needs. “We’ll pay our own students to serve as technicians.”
Plus there is a range of wraparound services available through multiple sources, from grants to businesses that hire students to funding for extra needs, such as transportation. Vagnier said the coalition wants to work with community organizations, too.
“It’s really an investment that we think will yield great dividends in order to keep our best and brightest right here in Blount County,” she said of the TN Valley Apprenticeships program.