AJAC program lets high school students learn and work in apprentice industry

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The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) is a nonprofit coalition of employers in the state of Washington. Since 2008, the member companies have worked together to help prepare residents for entry into the most advanced aerospace workforce in the world. By offering apprenticeship and training programs, they have helped thousands of adults earn good wages, enter meaningful and fulfilling careers, and begin a lifelong pursuit of education. This educated, motivated workforce helps employers remain internationally competitive. And now, thanks to a pilot program run under the direction of Executive Director Lynn Strickland, high schoolers as young as 16 can also enter the industry and learn on the job through AJAC’s youth apprenticeship programs.

In 2014, around the time Strickland was promoted to Executive Director, AJAC member companies were looking for innovative approaches to workforce development. The skilled trades in Washington are growing fast: in the next few years, there will be 7,200 new jobs with great pay and benefits in the aerospace industry alone. However, employers face challenges including a retiring workforce, changing technology, and an increasing skills gap.

One key way members chose to adapt was by reaching out to high school students. Training youth introduces them to the wide variety of occupations within the aerospace industry, as it increases the available pool of skilled workers. AJAC was able to obtain grants for a pilot program from both the United States Department of Labor and the state of Washington. As Strickland explains, “reaching out to high school students helps our employers adjust to all the issues they face in the workforce. It benefits everyone involved, and it was a logical step to take.”

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Currently entering their second year, the Automation and Production Technician programs are 2,000-hour courses, where high school juniors and seniors from 13 local school districts develop career-ready skills in the aerospace and advanced manufacturing industries. The programs combine paid on-the-job training with college-level classroom instruction, and can lead to a high school diploma, credit towards an adult apprenticeship, and tuition-free college credits. During the school year, participants work 10-20 hours per week, while in the summer, they can work 40 hours per week, at a wage comparable to an adult apprentice.

The programs teach participants a variety of skills that will benefit them in a future career. Students spend one day a week in class, learning everything from math and computer-aided design, to how to meet deadlines and keep a clean workspace. When they are not in school, they work on-site. Each student partners with an experienced employee, and learns how to calibrate, adjust, and operate machinery, tools, and gauges. The work is hands-on, and the students have as much responsibility as their adult colleagues. Throughout their training, they learn cooperation and accountability, and develop problem-solving and leadership skills.

The manufacturers do not simply rely on AJAC to train the students, and the students are treated as much more than a source of cheaper labor. In order for the program to succeed, employers must plan ahead, identifying master tradespeople to oversee the youth apprentices, and ensuring each student rotates through all parts of production. They must pay students at least minimum wage and provide students with standard workers’ compensation coverage. They must follow child labor and safety standards and offer flexible scheduling that allows students to attend class. Oversight is continuous and demanding.

The youth apprenticeship program has been a challenge to implement. AJAC had never seen an industry-wide push to work with high school students, and there was no framework to follow with respect to education and safety standards. Strickland spent 18 months working with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. Many of the positions available to the youth apprentices were previously designated as prohibited occupations, and new rules had to be drawn from scratch. “Nobody wanted the students to stand around watching older people do the work,” says Strickland, “but L&I’s Apprenticeship Division had to ensure the safety of the students. It would be the first time any of them were working with tools and machinery in a manufacturing environment, and we needed everyone on the same page.”

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The L&I Apprenticeship Division was hands-on in their approach to regulating the new program. Representatives toured employer sites, examining each piece of machinery that youth apprentices would use. Based on those inspections, they determined which equipment students can run, and which jobs are safe for them to perform. L&I also set forth requirements for supervision, safety instruction, scheduling and more. At the same time, Strickland worked with school districts, parents and program participants to ensure all concerns were addressed before the first cohort began classes in 2017.

The experience so far has been positive. Overall, Strickland says that more than half of the first group of students completed the program and went on to adult apprenticeships or continued working in aerospace. And, AJAC learned valuable lessons from those who didn’t complete it. Some transferred into other trades after discovering aerospace was not for them. Others experienced barriers such as transportation, homelessness, and lack of access to child care, that prevented them from committing. Now, there is a better understanding of the needs of the student participants, and a framework has been put in place to help manage these previously unforeseen complications.

Whether or not they completed the program, every participant in the youth apprenticeship is now better-equipped for the future. As Strickland says, “it's good for students to try something and decide whether they like it at 16 or 17 as opposed to 25 or 30 years old. They still have plenty of time to explore other opportunities. Half of figuring out what you want to do is understanding what you don't want to do.”

In the future, Strickland hopes to make youth apprenticeships available to all students across Washington. The current program is an elective, available only to those students who have completed two years of high school and are on track to graduate. And, as each school district has different elective requirements, students at some schools have opportunities that those at other schools do not. As AJAC expands youth apprenticeships to more districts, Strickland envisions a program that is open to students who are not on a graduation track but have the ability to learn and excel on the job.

Strickland has been impressed with the youth participants and sees a positive outlook for the program. “In the past, we haven’t given the youth enough credit with regards to their maturity and their desire to contribute. Employers who work with our apprentices experience an increase in innovation in their workforce, and an increase in overall productivity. Students who struggled in the typical educational setting are now in a position where they are self-sufficient, and their achievements are incredible. In just the past year, they have worked 22,000 on-the-job training hours, earned 840 college credits and more than $290,000 in wages.”

As the youth apprenticeship program begins its second year, Strickland is happy to see her years of planning come to fruition. “As tough as it has been to get this off the ground, it has been very inspiring because we see so many lives changed for the better. We see that parents are excited about it, as well as employers. Every single one of our apprentices has an inspiring story.” As she continues to push for more school districts to work with AJAC’s youth apprentice program, the future of the aerospace industry in Washington is promising.


Megan Quint