Washington considers state-run apprenticeship programs

Workforce challenges are forcing states to pursue creative new ways to train future employees.
Washington State Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber (R) works at her desk during a session on the floor of the House, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

OLYMPIA – Washington students may soon have another option in high school – a state-run apprenticeship program in a number of different fields.

As the Legislature looks to tackle workforce shortages this session, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber (R) would set up a high school apprenticeship pilot program run by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the state’s regional educational service districts.

It would help give students experience in a field that may not require a college education, especially those in rural areas who might not currently have a skills center available near them, Maycumber said.

“A lot of these kids, especially after COVID, have lost hope,” Maycumber said. “Knowing that they have a skill to move forward with makes them feel fulfilled and gives them hope for the future.”

Maycumber sponsored the bill last year as well, but it never made it out of committee. This year, the bill has more than 50 bipartisan co-sponsors.

The bill would require the program to set up two sites, one in Western Washington and one in Eastern Washington.

Washington’s nine regional educational districts would implement the program. According to the bill, they would work with community colleges, labor unions, industry groups and other apprenticeship programs to identify industries and professions best suited for apprenticeship .

They would also have to work with school districts, charter schools and state-tribal schools to make the apprenticeships available to high schoolers.

Students could then learn about a trade, go through the apprenticeship and leave prepared to take a trades entrance exam.

Washington has 14 skill centers run by OSPI where students can take classes while in high school, but most are in urban areas. About 7,000 high school students take classes at the centers each year, according to the Washington State Skill Center Association. Snohomish County also operates an apprenticeship pilot program, similar to the one being proposed in this bill.

Skills Centers director Charlie Brown said he knows the importance of this type of learning to students.

“We can use a lot more workers in our skilled trades today,” Brown said at a House Education committee hearing Monday.

Maycumber said the closest skill centers to her district are in Wenatchee and Spokane, so a number of students in rural areas between them don’t have a place to go.

“It’s an unfortunate reality that many students can miss out on educational opportunities, solely because of where they live,” Interlake High School student Pavan Venkatakrishnan, who serves on the state Board of Education, said at Monday’s hearing.

Monday’s public hearing drew mostly support, though there were some concerns from labor and trade groups about making language more specific in the bill.

John Traynor, of the Washington State Labor Council, said he supports strengthening these programs, but encouraged lawmakers to use more precise language to show that they are “pre-apprenticeship programs” done before students graduate and can take part in apprenticeships.

Erin Frasier, representing the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council, said she supports the bill, but the Legislature also should look at converting existing programs in K-12 schools to be state-recognized with little to no cost to the state.

Creating more regional pathways and expanding current programs would provide a focused pathway for youth in trades, Frasier said.

Jeannie Magdua, of the Conservative Ladies of Washington, testified against the bill because she said it would take away local control from schools and put the decision-making on these programs in the hands of OSPI.

“This bill establishes a regional authority that blurs the line of checks and balances,” she said.

Committee staff clarified that school districts would likely still get to decide if they want to take part in the apprenticeship program.

Legislative leaders in both parties have said workforce is a huge issue this year, and it will likely touch every other issue they try to tackle this session.

“There’s probably no more widespread problem in our economy,” House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox (R) said in a legislative preview earlier this month.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D) said failing to address workforce challenges could affect how the Legislature looks at a lot of other issues before them, such as housing, behavioral health and health care.

Along with expanding apprenticeship opportunities, both Democrats and Republicans said they will look at child care shortages, changing licensing requirements, particularly for some health care workers, and loosening educational requirements for certain positions.

Laurel Demkovich is a reporter for The Spokesman-Review, where this story first appeared. Her work is funded in part by Report for America.