By Noah Hill
After retiring from the Air Force with a career that spanned nearly 10 years, Adam Watson and his family settled down in Orlando, Florida. They were close to family and not far from his hometown in North Carolina. Watson began working as a ride mechanic for the Universal Studios Theme Park but decided that the work would not make a sustainable long-term career.
Always interested in IT and armed with his GI Bill, Watson began to search for ways he could get into the tech field.
“I wanted to look for an apprenticeship because the military familiarized me with that style of learning,” Watson said. “I find it very helpful to apply the knowledge as I am learning it.”
Eventually, his search for an apprenticeship in the tech field brought him to the fifth page of Google search results, where he saw a fledgling apprenticeship program in IT advertised by Missoula College.
Watson, who had been stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls with the 819th RED HORSE Unit for three years, immediately applied to the program.
“The apprenticeship seemed like it would be a great opportunity,” said Watson. “My wife and I always wanted to come back to Montana, and it seems like it had the best bang for the buck.”
Watson’s particular apprenticeship program is a partnership between Missoula College and Blackfoot, a local telecommunications company. Watson attends several classes at Missoula College in addition to working approximately 16 hours per week at Blackfoot. At work, Watson’s supervisor, Cody Mitchell, mentors him on a daily basis.
“Cody stops what he is doing, unless he’s on the phone with a customer, to answer my questions,” Watson said. “He doesn’t jump in there and do the job for you; he wants you to do it, and he’ll watch you do it and help you and guide you through the process.”
The Increasing Popularity of Apprenticeships
“When we hear the word apprenticeship, we typically imagine plumbers, electricians, carpenters and trades,” said Dylan Rogness, the apprenticeship liaison at Missoula College.
But Rogness believes that the apprenticeship model can be broadly applicable to a variety of fields, including tech.
“The cry from industry right now is we need a workforce, period, but can’t find anyone to fill their positions,” Rogness said. “Because of the demographics we serve at the [Missoula College], [students] are having a hard time pivoting into these positions because they have to work a 90-hour internship while putting food on the table for their families.”
Apprenticeships, Rogness surmises, serve both the needs of students and industry. Involving a minimum of 2,000 hours of paid training as required by the Montana Department of Labor, apprenticeships provide a hands-on, in-depth education in a particular career field. Moreover, the student has guaranteed part-time employment for the duration of their education while the company sponsoring the apprentice has a guaranteed employee for nearly two years, which can reduce costly employee turnover.
Currently, the Missoula College program has 15 apprentices and 18 employer partners. Rogness added that local small- and medium-sized businesses are finding the apprenticeship program especially valuable.
Missoula College’s apprenticeship program offers opportunities in six educational areas: accounting technology, culinary arts, cybersecurity, information technology, medical claims service specialist, and operations assistant. The college hopes to continue to grow the number of available opportunities by partnering with businesses to both create new apprenticeship programs and expand on the number of apprentice positions available in the current programs.
Apprenticeships Across the State
One Montana company that has pioneered high tech workforce training program within the state and on the national stage is Montana Instruments, based in Bozeman. In its fourth year, Founder and CEO Luke Mauritsen said he started this apprenticeship program to teach students skills that they may not have fully developed during their college education.
“We have students come in, and we will have a project for them that they take on that is probably over their heads, but it is highly mentored,” said Mauritsen. “Ideally, this project would be done in three months, or sometimes two summers, and they are seeing something all the way through.”
While completing a project can be a major accomplishment for their participants, Mauritsen also values other aspects of the apprenticeship that develop “soft skills,” non-technical skills that enhance the quality of an employee.
“[Apprentices] lead technical discussions and complete design reviews in front of other experienced engineers,” Mauritsen said. “This is probably really scary for them, but they get an experience that shows them what it really means to be an engineer.”
Equally important for Mauritsen, though, is the sense that his company’s apprenticeship program is supporting the community.
“I think at the end of the day, we’re giving something back and that we’re benefiting these young technicians, scientists and engineers,” said Mauritsen. “They take those skills wherever they go.”
NorthWestern Energy is another Montana company with a long history of apprenticeships. Jointly sponsored by the energy conglomerate and labor unions throughout the state, the apprenticeship has steadily supplied competent employees for the company.
“Our workforce starts with our apprenticeship program,” President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Rowe said.
The apprenticeship programs at NorthWestern are both rigorous and competitive. Typically lasting three years, the education combines academic studies provided directly by the company with field work, where apprentices interact with other crew members and apply their classroom skills. Graduates of the apprenticeship program earn the title of “Journeyman,” and their union certification allows them to practice their trade nearly anywhere in the world.
“As a journeyman, you are going to be doing very important work, you are going to be very well paid, and you are going to be respected,” Rowe said. “These are people doing storm response in Missoula, or up on the Hi-Line, doing incredibly important work.”
Several other Montana High Tech Business Alliance Members offer apprenticeship programs as well, including CUC Software in Billings which offers a program geared towards software development, and Jackson Contractor Group in Missoula which trains workers in skilled construction.
For students interested in applying for an apprenticeship program, consult the Missoula College Apprenticeship Program website or view a complete list of apprenticeships at the Montana Department of Labor website. If you or your company is interested in sponsoring an apprenticeship, find out how you can get involved by filling out the Missoula College Employer Interest Form or by contacting the Montana Department of Labor.
About the Author: Originally from Kalispell, Noah Hill will graduate from the University of Montana in May with a degree in microbiology and will be attending law school in the fall. In his free time, Noah enjoys rafting, fishing, hiking, and reading a good book.
About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is a nonpartisan nonprofit association of more than 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information, visit MTHighTech.org or subscribe to our biweekly newsletter