Apprentice Programs in High-Tech Fields Get $100M Boost From Dept. of Labor

By Benjamin Herold — December 11, 2014 3 min read
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Calling apprenticeships in high-skilled, high-tech fields a “ticket to the middle class,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez announced Thursday a new $100 million federal grant competition for public-private partnerships to develop registered apprenticeship programs.

The money—to be doled out via 25 grants ranging from $2.5 million to $5 million apiece—will come from employers who use H-1B visas to hire foreign workers, according to a news release issued by the Department of Labor.

At a press event held at school district headquarters here, Perez described the new grant program as the largest investment of its kind in the country’s history and said every dollar spent on the program will generate $28 in related economic activity. Last year, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted accelerating growth in jobs that require on-the-job apprenticeship training, and President Barack Obama touted the model.

Targeted fields for the apprenticeship program include healthcare, biotechnology, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.

The labor secretary announced the program after touring the 128,000-student School District of Philadelphia’s Urban Technology Project alongside Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and district superintendent William Hite. The program, which Perez described as a “model for how we train the workforce of tomorrow,” currently includes a “Digital Service Fellows” program, consisting of 26 AmeriCorps workers, and 23 “computer support specialists” participating in Pennsylvania’s only registered information-technology apprenticeship program.

The workers—all high school graduates—are trained in computer repair and provide real-world tech-support services to Philadelphia schools and administrative offices, earning a variety of technical certifications along the way.

Erika Jacobs, a 23-year old digital service fellow who hopes to graduate into the apprenticeship track next year, called the UTP program “awesome.”

Jacobs said she currently works 40 hours a week servicing schools’ computers, earning a modest stipend for her efforts. (A tidbit for you 1-to-1 school computing nerds out there: Jacobs was adamant that the inexpensive web-based Chromebook, which has a growing presence in Philadelphia, is far easier to service and manage than the Mac laptops she also works on. Ed Week has been looking closely at the Chromebook-versus-Apple debate, and my colleague Michelle Davis will host a Twitter chat on the subject next week.)

On top of her responsibilities with the UTP, Jacobs said, she also works about 30 hours a week as a home health aide; helps care for her elderly parents, who are ill; and is raising a 6-year old daughter.

Her plan, she said, is to merge her technology training and health-care work experience into a solid long-term career, possibly in health information technology.

“I have a lot on me, but I keep pushing myself,” she said. “Where I’m from [currently, an inner-city neighborhood in North Philadelphia], we don’t have a lot of opportunities, so if you find something like this, you have to get as much out of it as you can.”

Superintendent Hite said he’d like to expand the program—"these are the types of things we want more children to experience"—but has been hamstrung by his district’s epic and seemingly never-ending funding crisis.

Currently, money to support the apprenticeship component of the Urban Technology Project comes from the operating budgets of participating Philadelphia schools and district departments.

Adding federal dollars to the mix would be “huge,” said Elizabeth St. Clair, the project’s program manager.

In addition to growing the number of participants, she said, “we could expand our trainings and certifications and invite more innovative trainers in.”

Philadelphia is not guaranteed any funds through the program.

Applications—to come from partnerships consisting of employers, business associations, labor and labor-management organizations, community colleges, government agencies, and and/or nonprofits—are due April 30.

Photo: T.J. Rivera, 24, tells (from left-to-right) Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, and U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez about the Urban Technology Project prior to the announcement of a new $100 million federal grant competition to support registered apprenticeship programs. - Benjamin Herold for Education Week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.