When people hear “lineman,” they think football. At least that’s the reaction Keith Henderson receives when he teaches Philadelphia schoolchildren about jobs in the skilled trades. Henderson, who leads PECO Energy Company’s Workforce Development Program, wants to give inner-city kids hope through the trades.

PECO, an Exelon Corporation affiliate, provides millions in Philadelphia with electricity. But someone has to maintain the power lines, and not many people have the right skillset. That’s where PECO steps in, with its Helper Pre-Apprenticeship Program. PECO is one of a growing number of companies getting more involved with training future employees in the skills they need to work in the skilled trades. Apprenticeships have grown in popularity. The Department of Labor has recorded a 64 percent growth in registered apprenticeships since 2012.

PECO’s pre-apprenticeship program, now in its third year, introduces future tradesmen to the world of aerial line, gas, and underground mechanics. Pre-apprenticeships get students familiar with various jobs before they commit to one field. Once students complete the pre-apprenticeship program—which 83 percent do, according to Henderson—they can move on to an actual apprenticeship. PECO apprenticeships last about 42 months.

David Garcia, a 2022 Helper graduate, said that the program allowed him to explore his options before he decided that his passions lay with aerial lines. After completing Helper, Garcia attended PECO’s version of a trade school, the Underground and Aerial Line School, in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. “It is three months of exercises, climbing up and down poles. It is one of the hardest things I’ve done,” he says.

Apprentices with PECO earn $23–$25/hour, Henderson says. Those who become first-class aerial line mechanics make a base salary of about $55 an hour, which exceeds $100,000 annually.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs in the skilled trades will grow by nearly 650,000 per year between 2022 and 2032, as older workers retire and leave their careers permanently. The demand for powerline installers is projected to grow by 3 percent, or as fast as the average, during this same period.

Jennifer Carlson, executive director of Washington State-based Apprenti, works with companies to set up apprenticeships. Pre-apprenticeships, she says, indicate that an employer wants to complement its talent-acquisition system by internalizing talent development.

PECO’s programs are unique in a few ways. First, none of its programs is formally registered with the state or the federal government. Registration allows organizations to obtain grant funding, which can help them offset the costs of apprenticeship programs. PECO instead relies on its own resources. Henderson said that PECO spends about $1.5 million annually to administer its pre-apprenticeship program and does not rely on public funds. Exelon spends $16 million annually to run workforce-development programs across its various affiliates in the United States.

Though formal registration provides employees a portable credential that communicates legitimacy of training, unregistered programs can still offer quality preparation. Carlson said that some of her clients, which include tech companies like Amazon and Visa, did not want to administer their own apprenticeship programs because they had offices in multiple states and sought workers with a standardized set of skills.

The complexity of differing state versus federal registration systems can deter employer involvement with apprenticeships, Carlson says. She finds Pennsylvania’s apprenticeship registration process one of the most challenging in the country. Given Pennsylvania’s historical ties with unions, much of the approval process still operates under the now-obsolete assumption that apprenticeships are primarily for manufacturing and construction work. The Pennsylvania Apprenticeship Council takes a dim view of apprenticeships for other industries. Carlson says the system needs to “modernize” to accommodate other industries like IT, finance, and health care.

Kaila Shannon, manager of apprenticeships at Philadelphia Works, says that the state registration process can last from six to 12 months. Companies that already run their own apprenticeship programs can struggle to adapt them to meet registration standards—144 classroom training hours and 2,000 on-the-job training hours per year of the program. 

PECO bypassed the headaches associated with registration, which allows it to meet industry needs faster. But PECO alone can’t solve the shortage in workers. PECO’s pre-apprenticeship program is as selective as admission to Harvard. Out of the 700 to 1,000 applications the program receives, only 25 get accepted for each class. Applicants must pass a skills test, a drug test, and have a clean criminal record.

“It’s important for people who enter these programs that they have an understanding of what they are getting into,” Henderson says. “They have to be honest about their capabilities, and we have to be fully transparent about what the work entails.”

Then there is the question of costs. Henderson, Carlson, and Shannon believe apprenticeships provide a positive return on investment, but employers have historically been skittish about costs, fearing that they will make an investment in developing talent that won’t pay off. American University professor Robert Lerman’s research says that employers should take heart. “The first year of apprenticeships involves significant costs, but subsequently, the apprentice’s contributions exceed his/her wages and supervisory costs.”

With interest in apprenticeships growing across industries, states like Pennsylvania need to update their regulations to keep up. Employers’ interest in offering apprenticeships would grow if the registration process were less time-consuming. Most importantly, expanding apprenticeship availability means more opportunities for those for whom college isn’t the right fit. It means offering a cost-effective route for people to enter the middle class.

“I was able to purchase a home,” Garcia said. “I am able to provide for anyone that needs it in the family. I am financially free.”

Photo: Marcia Straub/Moment via Getty Images


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