Shane French had years of experience working in the excavating business, but couldn’t find an opening when he moved to Billings some 3½ years ago.
“It was January, so there wasn’t a lot of work,” French said. However, he landed work in a related field, as a laborer at Precision Plumbing in Billings. After establishing himself as a reliable worker for a few months, he was accepted to an apprenticeship program that put him on the path toward earning certification as a journeyman plumber.
Since then, French has been busy learning the trade while working under the supervision of the company’s licensed plumbers. He hits the books at nights and on weekends as he continues the process of earning his certification.
There's plenty of incentive to complete the book work. Successfully completing a section translates into a 5 percent raise, French said.
“I really enjoy working here. It’s good work. They treat you right and all the guys are pretty good to work with,” French said.
French, 31, will soon have logged the required 7,500 hours of on-the-job training and will sit for his final exam, the final step in the certification process. If everything goes as planned, he should be a journeyman plumber by this time next year.
Chris Planalp, another apprentice working at Precision Plumbing, said he sometimes encounters pre-test jitters, much like he did when he was in school.
“The test isn’t really all that hard,” Planalp said. “It’s just about making sure that you’ve read the book.”
Planalp said he became interested in the plumbing apprenticeship after visiting with a cousin who’s apprenticing to become an electrician.
French and Planalp are among thousands of Montanans who have taken advantage of Montana’s registered apprenticeship and training program. Apprenticeship is a system designed to ensure that employers can hire qualified workers for a variety of skilled jobs in both the public and private sector.
Wherever he travels throughout the state promoting apprenticeships, George Kesel points out that program isn’t a fall-back strategy for people who don’t have a lot of interest in going to college.
“It’s an exceptional way to learn a skill,” said Kesel, a field representative for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. “It’s hands-on training with college-level coursework specific to the profession.”
Apprentices also earn above-average wages. Unlike many blue-collar and even an increasing number of white-collar jobs, “These are careers that can’t be exported,” Kesel said.
Montana added more than 10,000 jobs since the beginning of the year, causing the statewide jobless rate to dip to 4.6 percent in May. In the wake of this lower-than average unemployment rate, some employers have encountered a shortage of skilled workers. That reinforces the need for apprenticeship, Kesel said. Demographic changes will create vacancies in industries that rely on apprenticeships as the Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age.
“The average age of a master plumber is 53 years old, and that means in a few years half the plumbers and electricians will be retired,” Kesel said. “That statistic is true throughout the trades. There’s a drastic need for skilled labor.”
Teri Biegel, co-owner of Precision Plumbing, said laborers must prove themselves on the job before they’re accepted into the apprenticeship program.
“We want to see them work, and only a certain number of them are going to be accepted.” Showing up on time and showing professionalism on the job are two characteristics that Precision Plumbing looks for, Biegel said.
Greg Moos, an owner with Action Electric, said the company currently has eight apprentices. Many of them are recruited from within the company’s ranks of laborers.
Moos said he likes to hire veterans and National Guard members as well.
“It’s a great career, but it’s hard work,” Moos said. “Our goal is to find people with a good work ethic who are honest.”
French plans to continue working for Precision Plumbing after he becomes certified. But for some, the apprenticeship program leads to bigger plans.
Shane Anderson, owner of Anderson Electric, completed his apprenticeship with the electrician’s union. He started his own business in 2005, initially working for himself. The company has grown since then, and Anderson frequently employs more than a dozen workers.
“It was a way better alternative to college,” Anderson said. “There was no college tuition to pay, and no student debt.”