During November’s Apprenticeship Week – which formally launched a remarkable new program called Apprenticeship Works – one local woman from Unum who participated and graduated from its company’s apprenticeship program declared to a crowd of Chattanooga’s business leaders, elected officials, and media: My apprenticeship is one of the best things in my life.

Her statement reflects the larger goal of Apprenticeship Works: to create a powerful difference in thousands of lives.

“That story is incredibly powerful,” Walton Robinson said. “To think that we can make opportunities like hers available to many more people across the community motivates me to get up and get moving every morning.”

Robinson is the new head of ApprenticeshipWorks, a jointly funded local program that celebrated its official launch during the mid-November Apprenticeship Week celebration, an annual event sponsored by the US Department of Labor.

Apprenticeship Works – a coalition of businesses, local government, schools, nonprofits, foundations, and other partners – has one main purpose:

To expand and strengthen the apprenticeship program in Hamilton County and Chattanooga.

“The goal for us is to ensure that we identify potential over credential so people with talent and drive won’t be frozen out of the ‘new collar’ economy just because they do not have a college degree. If we are successful, the entire local economy will benefit,” Robinson continued.

The kickoff Apprenticeship Week – punctuated by a new event every day – was aimed at many different types of people.

Jobseekers, students, and career-changers: apprenticeship is a viable option that introduces paid, on-the-job training and skills while forging a new career pathway.

“This model will help build economic mobility and open up new opportunities for people without a four-year college degree,” Robinson said.

Companies, industries, and business owners: apprenticeship programs can develop your talent pipeline and ensure you have talent and skills. Plus, Apprenticeship Works provides a host of resources to help create, design, implement and strengthen a business’s apprenticeship program.

“The reality is that many employers do not know that starting an apprenticeship program is even an option,” Robinson added. “Yes, it’s an option, one that gives companies a competitive advantage and significant financial benefits.”

Part of the work is updating people’s perceptions.

“Many people still associate apprenticeship only with traditional trades,” Robinson said. “While trades are essential to the apprenticeship ecosystem, they are far from the only option. There are now modern apprenticeships in careers like cyber security, digital marketing, data analyst, web designer, and many more.”

The good news continues:

Chattanooga and Hamilton County were named one of five Apprenticeship Innovation Hubs in the nation.

And the Apprenticeship Works program has developed 21 different types of apprenticeship programs; Hamilton County will offer another 40 through “schools, labor unions, and trade schools,” the Times Free Press reported.

“What is happening here in Chattanooga is very special,” Michelle Rhee, nationally known consultant and co-founder of BuildWithin, told the Apprenticeship Week crowd, the Times Free Press reported. “What we have built together in Chattanooga over the past year is really setting the example to the rest of the world.”

Rhee, former DC chancellor of public schools, traveled to Chattanooga for National Apprenticeship Week at the Chattanooga Construction Center.

She praised our city’s efforts, specifically mentioning Hamilton County’s Future Ready Institutes – which unites schools and employers – as well as the Chattanooga Construction Center, which trains students and adults in building trades and skills.

Currently, there are nearly two dozen existing apprenticeship roles, offering training in positions from the hospitality industry to cybersecurity to landscape design.

According to the Times Free Press:

“The rising cost of traditional four-year degrees, which were long believed to be the pathway to success for young Americans, are yielding ground to the more traditional educational approach of apprenticeships and learning on the job. …. Combined with demographic changes, overall college enrollment has declined by nearly 2 million students and has dropped, especially among men.

But apprenticeships are growing, nearly doubling for men in the past decade, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.”

“An apprenticeship is a beginning, not an end,” Robinson said. “Ten years from now, the dream scenario would be a thriving local apprenticeship ecosystem with thousands of apprentices and hundreds of companies – from every sector you can think of – hosting apprentices and helping build pre-apprenticeship programs for students in Hamilton County Schools. We want to see small businesses with a handful of apprentices to large enterprises with hundreds of apprentices to all participate and thrive in the local apprenticeship ecosystem.”

Apprenticeship Works is an example of working together toward one of the goals of Chattanooga Climbs, the Chattanooga Chamber’s strategic plan for creating stronger jobs, growing stronger businesses, increasing regional prosperity, and developing skills for a new economy. To participate in Apprenticeship Works, please contact Walton Robinson at [email protected] or 423.922.9844 or visit Apprenticeship.Works.