In Montana, we are celebrating a strong economy with growing wages, additional jobs and a culture of entrepreneurship. But our economic success means workers are in high demand, which brings new challenges for employers who are seeking to recruit and retain skilled employees.
As the labor relations analyst at NorthWestern Energy, I know it’s important to have businesses and industries at the forefront of responding to Montana’s worker shortage. I’ve had the privilege to serve as a member of the State Workforce Innovation Board that advises the governor on statewide workforce development strategies. And most recently, I accepted a position as chair of the Apprenticeship Advisory Council for the Montana Department of Labor & Industry, which provides guidance and supports the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program.
This week, business sponsors and apprentices and our partners across the state are recognizing National Apprenticeship Week and the opportunities apprenticeship brings. I’ve seen firsthand how investing in apprenticeship programs can be one of the most effective ways for a variety of industries to build skilled and loyal workers.
At NorthWestern Energy, we have well-established relationships with labor unions, the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program and other training partners to hire experienced workers to safely deliver our services in Montana. Because safety is our biggest priority, we make it a focus of all our registered and non-registered apprenticeship and training programs. When workers enter one of our apprenticeship programs, we get to stress the importance of our safety culture from the start and weave it into every aspect of training. By the time our apprentices are journeymen, safety is a core value. The success of our registered apprenticeships has also paved pathways for our non-registered apprentice and other internal employee training programs, by proving successful methods of instilling employees in our safety culture, upholding our company standards and ethics that our customers expect.
In addition to producing workers with the skills tailored to your needs, apprenticeship programs foster loyalty. If an employer invests in training an apprentice, in our experience, they are likely to end up with a well-trained and hardworking employee who is dedicated to their organization. At NorthWestern Energy, we’ve graduated 38 apprentices in the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program over the last five years. Every single one of those apprentices is still employed with us.
For apprentices, the benefits are extensive as well. Apprenticeships offer individuals a way to avoid student loan debt and get paid while training. Apprentices in Montana earned a starting wage of $60,754 in 2016. At NorthWestern Energy, our average Lineman and Gasman step 1 apprentice earns $29.90 per hour. When an apprentice becomes a journeyman Lineman or Gasman, the average starting wage is $44.29 per hour at NorthWestern Energy.
While apprenticeships have long been rooted in the trades, there are more than 90 occupations available in the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program that span Montana’s most in demand jobs. There are more than 20 apprenticeable occupations in health care and the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program’s newest apprenticeship is in brewing.
For businesses, starting an apprenticeship program could feel overwhelming, but both personal experience and data show that in the right circumstances, it’s time and money well spent. Investing in the workforce to meet industry demand benefits all Montanans. When employers begin building pipelines into meaningful careers, our communities and our economy thrives. I encourage employers, workers, teachers and students to capitalize on the opportunities apprenticeship brings.
National Apprenticeship Week is a national celebration held November 12-18, offering leaders in business, labor, education and other critical partners a chance to demonstrate their support for apprenticeship. The week-long event highlights the benefits of apprenticeship in preparing a highly-skilled workforce to meet the talent needs of employers across diverse industries.
Dean Bentley of Butte is a labor relations analyst for Northwestern Energy. He has also served as a member of the State Workforce Innovation Board and chairs the Apprenticeship Advisory Council for the Montana Department of Labor & Industry.