Panel: From left, Mike Rackers (Clarksville Heating and Air), Grant D’Angelo (Clarksville Heating and Air), Chris Giannoumis (EDF Renewables), Wesley Bennett (World Wide Corp.), Joseph Denning (Lloyd Plumbing Corp.), Tom Albert (Lloyd Plumbing Corp.) and Jim Rzepkowski (Howard Community College) discussed their experiences in apprenticeship during a National Education Week event. (Photo: TBM/George Berkheimer)

Howard Community College celebrated National Education Week in November with a focus on apprenticeship, a work-based training program that builds skills and leads to sustainable employment.

It’s not the first thing most people think of when they hear the word education or college, but apprenticeship is actually a good fit for HCC, particularly in light of the businesses it partners with, all of which need a skilled workforce.

In fact, it’s such a good fit that HCC is planning to replace Parking Lot C with a $21 million, 50,000 square foot Workforce Development and Trades Center, and Howard County government is committing $10 million to support the project.

Jeffrey Smith, Workforce Liaison and Program Analyst at the U.S. Department of Labor, said Howard Community College is one of Maryland’s biggest community colleges for registered apprenticeship sponsors and an innovator in providing a broad array of occupations and industry in its programs.

“Maryland has 727 youth apprentices statewide, exceeding last year’s record of 609,” Smith said. “Howard County is also leader in Apprenticeship Maryland, our state’s youth apprenticeship initiative.”

The business community heard from several employers and apprentices during a special event on Nov. 15 that highlighted the benefits of apprenticeship and also shed light on the growing demand for it.

Invaluable investment

Three youth apprentices and three employers participated in a panel discussion during the HCC celebration event to share their experiences.

Mike Rackers, owner and president of Clarksville Heating and Air, said he experienced the value of apprenticeship firsthand.

“When I established Clarksville I knew that was the path we needed to find good young talent,” he said. “It’s an investment to bring on someone with minimal or no experience, but as those apprentices grow it’s invaluable to our business and I imagine it’s the same for others.”

Grant D’Angelo, a second-year apprentice working for Clarksville, said his interest increased after taking an HVAC class in high school, and knew he didn’t want to attend a university, although he is enrolled in HCC classes as part of his apprenticeship training.

“I’ve been thinking about taking business management classes because I’d like to have my own company, and that would help me get there,” he said.

Workforce shortages

Tom Albert, vice president of Lloyd Plumbing Corp., said he believes the undeserved stigma that was once attached to shop and vo-tech training is changing now that businesses, academia and jobseekers are beginning to acknowledge how valuable skilled trades are.

“The workforce shortage is so bad that for every five trade crafts workers who retire, only two are replacing them, and that’s across the board,” he said.

Lloyd’s first high school plumbing apprentice is preparing to start college, Albert said, and is on track to become a supervisor in four years.

“I’m envisioning an exciting consistency and continuity in this program,” he said. “This is not only what the county needs, but the entire country.”

Joseph Denning, a first-year apprentice with Lloyd, dispelled the notion that candidates need experience before employers will hire them.

“I started without knowing much about plumbing,” he said. “My main job was being as useful as possible, learning as much as possible, and asking a lot of questions.”

Wesley Bennett, a second-year plumbing apprentice with World Wide Corp., said he was tired of job hopping and wanted some solidity.

“My advice is, the earlier you start, the sooner you can start making money and getting experience,” he said.

Apprenticeships aren’t limited to the building trades, but also include nursing, IT and cybersecurity, and even child development, and can be highly technical.

Chris Giannoumis, a senior development engineer for EDF Renewables, said the solar contractor offers a wide range of career paths, but many of its employment candidates lack specialized skill sets that apprenticeship could address.

“It’s not enough these days to have traditional education relatable to an industry,” he said. “It requires those skills to be learned from reputable and reliable training sources to be effective.”

Apprentice: Plumbing apprentices Wesley Bennett, left, and Joseph Denning participated in a panel discussion on apprenticeship at Howard Community College on Nov. 15. (Photo: TBM/George Berkheimer)

Education goal

Apprenticeship is poised to become a more significant part of traditional education, with the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future setting out a goal of ensuring at least 45% of high school students complete a high-school-level apprenticeship program or acquire an industry-recognized credential by the 2030-31 school year.

In Howard County, 18% of students met that criteria as of the 2022-2023 school year, up from only 7% in earlier years.

“We’re making a concerted effort to expand and upscale our apprenticeship program,” said Stephanie Discepolo, who oversees the Howard County Public Schools System’s youth apprenticeship program. “We tripled our program, going from 34 students last year to 101 this year.”

HCPSS partners with HCC and the county’s Office of Workforce Development, focusing on building off the success of the trades programs.

“Our goal has been to expand our offerings to include all career cluster areas,” Discepolo said. “I will say confidently we are the county that connects the most students in registered apprenticeships in their senior year. It’s a lofty goal, to reach 45%, but I think we’ll make it.”