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Education Foundation for Balto. Co. launches apprenticeship program

Jack Bonner graduated from Mount Saint Mary’s University in 2017 with a computer science degree. He tried a couple of jobs – working for a moving company and then selling life insurance – but none stuck.

“Nothing really gripped me,” said Bonner, 23, of Towson. “I wanted to go back to [doing something related to] my degree – that’s what I’d worked so hard to obtain. I really enjoy it.”

About six months ago, he got his chance: he became a registered apprentice for Towson marketing company Zest Social Media Solutions, learning web development skills from experienced mentors while getting paid.

Bonner is one of 17 apprentices that make up the inaugural class of the Education Foundation of Baltimore County’s new apprenticeship program which helps companies train employees through state-certified apprenticeships.

“It’s been really cool to be able to learn on the job as well as do real life stuff,” Bonner said.

The initiative is being spearheaded by Tim Bojanowski, president of both the Education Foundation and Zest Soclal Media Solutions. He said since rolling out the program this spring, the Education Foundation has partnered with a handful of companies to register apprentices in three occupations.

The foundation currently has apprentices training as information technology specialists, paraprofessionals and in digital media, Bojanowski said, saying by spring the goal is to incorporate six or seven more professions.

The Education Foundation acts as a sort of broker, Bojanowski said, working with companies to get their new employees registered as apprentices with the state and to develop a training program. So far, apprentices have been recruited by the companies themselves – but Bojanowski said he hopes to go into “open enrollment” by spring, in which prospective apprentices – graduates from Baltimore County schools, for instance – can apply through the Education Foundation and be matched with companies. College degrees are not required to enter the program.

Entry-level employees in the program register as apprentices and then complete a set number of instructional hours, either at area colleges, in-house or online. Bojanowski said Zest uses the website Lynda to train employees in skills like Google Analytics and Adobe Creative Suite. After a year, apprentices become “journeymen,” and are certified in their field.

As part of the program, apprentices are often hired at a lower starting salary than is typical for the position, Bojanowski said, but they earn more when they hit set guidelines or months of experience. The idea, Bojanowski said, is that the company is investing in the apprentice, training him or her to the company’s specific culture and needs, and encouraging him or her to stay at the organization for years after.

“I just think it’s a great alternative,” said Bilaal Daghar, a digital media apprentice at Zest, comparing it to an internship he did while in college that he said was full of “menial” tasks. The apprenticeship, he said, is "better in the sense that there’s more responsibility on your shoulders, which will make you more invested in it … you’re kind of thrown in the thick of things, forced to learn, sometimes on the fly.”

“I very rapidly started doing real work, instead of watching and waiting and shadowing,” Bonner said. “I feel that was beneficial to me to learn the web development process.”

Bonner said the program was well-suited to his computer science degree because the field has so many programming languages that it is impossible to learn them all while in school. At Zest, he has focused on mastering PHP, “getting down into the nitty-gritty.”

“Computer science is always expanding, always growing,” Bonner said. “You need to always always keep learning.”

‘Opportune time’ for apprenticeships

Chris Maclarion, director of apprenticeships for the Maryland Department of Labor, said the Education Foundation’s new program tracks with growth in apprenticeships across the state in fields that do not typically have apprenticeship programs.

“This is occurring across every industry, every occupation,” Maclarion said. The state’s apprenticeship office has registered double the number of apprenticeship programs in the last two years than in previous three, he said, and about 40 percent of those programs have been in areas other than construction, a field that typically offers apprenticeships along with skilled trades like plumbing.

“I think that it’s kind of becoming a real opportune time for this little movement,” Bojanowski said. “Because simultaneously, as there are a lot of people getting sticker shock around the price of a four-year degree, and more and more horror stories of just people kind of drowning in debt for decades … you’re seeing people have success with this kind of digital or program-based training that then get jobs.”

Douglas Handy, director of Career and Technology Education, said the opportunity to “earn while you learn” can be a draw for students considering their options after high school. Such programs, he said, can be especially beneficial for students from low-income backgrounds who need to earn money right away.

“We talk about education being the great equalizer,” Handy said. “Studies have shown that students coming from poverty rack up debt in college, and stay on the pathway of being indebted … . This is a way to avoid a lot of that.”

One of the companies partnering with the Education Foundation is Advance, a Cockeysville-based IT services company. Kristin Huber, the company’s marketing director, said for Advance, the apprenticeship program is a way to “crystallize” an already robust training system.

The IT business, Huber said, is constantly changing, and employees have to be trained to maintain the brands of equipment Advance provides.

"We find that no matter what, if they’re coming in at an entry level they will need a training program, just due to the nature of our business,” Huber said.

The apprenticeship program, she said, has helped the company formalize that training and make career paths more clear to new recruits.

Eventually, Huber said, Advance hopes to recruit through the Education Foundation directly in order to address the challenge of recruiting quickly enough to keep up with a “growing” business.

In addition to recruiting directly, Bojanowski said the Education Foundation hopes to incorporate the program in Baltimore County schools. High school students, he said, could start gaining apprenticeship “credits” in high school, like they do college credits today, and then after graduation be closer to becoming a registered journeyman.

“Not all children may want to go to the college path immediately,” said Debbie Phelps, executive director of the Education Foundation. “They may detour … It’s making sure we take a look at all our students, creating opportunities for each one of them.”

As the apprenticeship program grows, Handy, in the school system, said he will work to reduce the stigma that apprenticeship and other career training programs are a “lower pathway” to college.

“A lot of what we do is making sure we explode those myths that we’re only for students that aren’t college-bound,” Handy said. “Even college-bound students need a skill set.”

Daghar said while learning skills was important, working with experienced mentors in the field is especially valuable.

“Just the fact that I got to work so closely with somebody that had done it for years and was proficient in what she did … that was the main attraction for me,” Daghar said.

asolomon@baltsun.com

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