Apprenticeships lead to high-paying jobs and fill workforce gaps in Hampton Roads, experts say

Apprenticeships help disadvantaged workers get into high-paying jobs while helping employers develop employees and retain them longer, Hampton Roads experts say.

“Apprenticeship is a phenomenal pathway into positive economic mobility and family-sustaining wages,” said Christina Brooks, senior director of community initiatives for the Hampton Roads Workforce Council.

The council hosted an Apprenticeship Summit during National Apprenticeship Week on Nov. 15 at Virginia Peninsula Community College in Hampton. About 75 participants attended the event, which included a panel discussion with industry experts.

Hampton Roads is vibrant and dynamic, which makes the need for a skilled and adaptable workforce even more imperative, said Towuanna Porter Brannon, president of Virginia Peninsula Community College.

“We stand on the cusp of significant economic growth and development,” Brannon said. “We together are going to be able to harness the power of our businesses, local government and apprenticeships to prepare more people to be ready for the workforce.”

Latitia McCane, director of education at Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School, said she has seen the power of apprenticeships through several apprentices leaving poverty for high-paying jobs.

“It changed the trajectory of their entire family,” McCane said.

From a business perspective, McCane said more than 70% of the school’s graduates become leaders within the company and, oftentimes, go on to become leaders within the community.

Guy St. John, manager of Oceaneering’s apprenticeship program addresses the crowd during the Hampton Roads Workforce Council’s Apprenticeship Summit on Nov. 15. Other panelists included Latitia McCane, Newport News Shipbuilding; Karen Miller, NASA Langley Research Center; Todd Estes, Virginia Peninsula Community College; and Christina Perez, HRSD. Christina Brooks, senior director of community initiatives for the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, acted as the moderator. (Sandra J. Pennecke/Staff)

Christina Perez, training manager with Hampton Roads Sanitation District, shared that apprenticeships have existed longer than higher education institutions and were the original training model. In addition to hands-on training, she said apprentices learn holistically, which creates innovative critical thinkers.

“They don’t just know how to turn the wrench; they know why they turn the wrench in that direction for that long and what is the cost associated with doing that wrong,” Perez said.

Karen Miller, facilitator of NASA Langley Research Center’s engineering technician apprenticeship program, said she is on the last leg of a “23 in 2023″ initiative, traveling to all of the community colleges within the commonwealth. As of Nov. 15, she had visited 21, where she gave 35 presentations and spoke to more than 2,000 students about NASA Langley’s program in Hampton.

One audience member asked about the difference between internships and apprenticeships.

While both are equally important, internships may be unpaid and may not lead to a job offer, Miller explained. Apprenticeships combine paid on-the-job training with classroom instruction.

Guy St. John, manager of Oceaneering’s apprenticeship program in Chesapeake, shared how the ship and submarine repair business works hard to recruit and retain female apprentices into a tough occupation.

The maritime industry, albeit a difficult industrial environment, is one that St. John said “women get into and exceed expectations beyond their wildest dreams.”

McCane said the Apprentice School retains women at a higher rate than men — over 90%.

“We have about 14% women whereas the national average is about 7%,” she said.

Newport News Shipbuilding’s program started FAB, or Female Apprentice Builders, a safe space for women to have conversations with company leaders.

“Holistically, we think about the whole person and all that we can do around that person,” McCane said, noting the school provides mentors and wraparound support services.

Todd Estes, vice president of workforce development for Virginia Peninsula Community College, said apprenticeships are a strategic and structured way to develop employees within a company’s culture and a powerful recruitment tool, especially for underserved populations.

“There’s nothing more attractive to someone who’s entering an industry with a clear path for development with an end outcome and a strategy that’s been laid out for them,” he said. “You get to create a credibly high valuable employee within your organization, and when you invest in people, they tend to invest back in you.”

Sandra J. Pennecke, 757-652-5836,