Featured photo: Blue Ridge Community College plumbing apprentice Seth Wilson works on site at T.P. Howard’s Plumbing Company, Inc. (Photo by Rich Keen, Marketing and Communications Dept.)
This article is also available on EdNC.org.
By Dr. Laura B. Leatherwood, President
Blue Ridge Community College
At a time when industry demand for skilled trades workers outpaces supply, Blue Ridge Community College continues to leverage and innovate apprenticeships as a valuable strategy to bring qualified professionals to these technical fields.
As it stands, there are only 72 workers available for every 100 open jobs, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, a proprietary model developed by Associated Builders and Contractors shows that in 2024, the industry must source at least an additional 342,000 new workers beyond normal hiring to avoid construction backlogs.
This predicament translates to slower builds on housing statewide, exacerbating an issue that is especially evident for low-income residents. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Gap Report shows that in North Carolina, while there are over 343,000 extremely low-income renter households, only about 135,000 units exist, translating to a gap of 208,000 units.
So, at its core, our present dilemma with the availability and cost of housing is — in part — a workforce problem that requires a workforce solution. Fortunately, meeting these kinds of challenges head on is where community colleges shine.
Bridging the gap through apprenticeships
Part of the statewide ApprenticeshipNC program of the North Carolina Community College System, our Apprenticeship Blue Ridge program is one of our college’s fastest-growing areas. It presently offers certifications in 10 technical disciplines, allowing eligible high school graduates and adult learners to earn a living wage both in the classroom and on the job while learning a skilled trade.
Our program is a delicate balancing act with special efforts made to ensure mutual benefits for the student and industry partner alike. We leaned away from a traditional classroom-based schedule, translating the majority of learning into hands-on training, side by side with a licensed professional. The result is a sustainable partnership of contextualized learning and on-the-job experience.
Intensifying communication between the college and industry partners made a difference, too. Weekly conversations determine how the apprentices — and the overall program — are working. Further, we ensure that those teaching the content are experts in their respective trades. Partner employers supply all instructors, so it’s a win-win for employers who can recruit and train a new crop of employees, resulting in positive relationships that foster longer-term employment.
The feedback we’re getting is extremely promising, and so are our results. So far, the college has experienced a 90% retention rate among apprentices. These students are finishing their programs equipped with the right skills for their trades, ready to continue their careers with their apprenticeship employers and the very instructors under whom they studied.
“One of the best things I’ve learned at Blue Ridge is that you don’t have to go one certain way in life; there are many paths to success,” shared 20-year-old apprentice Bailey Fox.
Fox recently left a traditional 4-year school to study plumbing with us at Blue Ridge under the direction of instructors from T.P. Howard’s Plumbing Company, Inc.
“It’s really nice to apply what you are learning,” he added, noting the expertise of the teaching staff. “My instructor is a veteran in the field, and I can ask questions and bounce ideas off of him. He knows what he’s talking about.”
Tools for success
Fox may be on his way to becoming a young professional in a skilled trade, but we recognize that also paramount to the success of each student, and the consequent retention of each future employee, is expertise in parallel life skills and business fluency.
As a result, the Blue Ridge team built additional resources into the program that extend beyond technical acumen, teaching skills like financial literacy and business management. A mentorship component, meanwhile, enables the college to step in when students encounter barriers to success like housing, child care, or transportation.
Apprentice Seth Wilson said the program has not only been extremely effective in preparing him for technical aspects of the job, but also taught him other critical facets of a business, such as collaboration, communication, and problem-solving.
“The leaders teach you so much,” Wilson said. “There are never perfect instructions when you show up at a job — you have to troubleshoot and understand how systems work, and you have to communicate with business owners, general contractors, and professionals in just about every trade. I feel like this program has really given me a head start.”
Like Seth, we believe in the power of innovation and relationship when solving complex challenges like the present housing crisis in our state. We are proud that Apprenticeship Blue Ridge is moving the needle, one skilled worker at a time.
The growing Apprenticeship Blue Ridge program offers tracks in skilled trades fields like electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning (HVAC), and construction, as well as other pathways meeting workforce needs in manufacturing, early childhood education, automotive, and more. Learn more here.