Skiing at Big Sky (courtesy of Big Sky Resort)

Skiing at Big Sky (courtesy of Big Sky Resort)

Since its inception in 1987, Montana Rail Link has utilized apprenticeships in its company.

“Our industry was among the first during the industrial revolution to formalize apprenticeships,” said Scott Trent, the chief human resources officer for Montana Rail Link. “Railroads began doing them in the 1850s.”

For many businesses in Montana, apprenticeships have paid off for building a qualified workforce for their companies.

During the 2017 Montana Legislature, the Montana Chamber of Commerce spearheaded the passage of HB 308, the Apprenticeship Tax Credit. This bill creates a non-refundable tax credit for employers who participate in a registered program with the Department of Labor and Industry. The credit applies to new apprenticeship programs, but offers $750 for each hired apprentice and $1,500 per veteran apprentice.

This is one way the Montana Chamber has worked to elevate the conversation around apprenticeships.

“We are proud of the work accomplished with HB 308 during the last session because we’ve seen the impact apprenticeships have had on Montana businesses,” said Webb Brown, the Montana Chamber of Commerce president/CEO. “But now we have hope other businesses will start thinking about the benefits of hosting apprenticeship programs at their companies. Today, we’ve seen that apprenticeships can be successful in any business.”

Montana Rail Link has four apprenticeship programs: signalman, carman, electrician and machinist. The apprenticeships usually last two to three years. After an apprentice is accepted to the program, they go through months of training which include schooling and field experience.

As a member of the State Workforce Innovation Board (SWIB), Trent said Montana Rail registered its apprenticeships after Gov. Steve Bullock pushed to expand apprenticeships. Trent said apprenticeships have been proved to be a solid path for growing people into journeyman for their trade craft. Apprenticeships are also a “earn while they learn” process and are paid.

“I think railroads figured this out a long time ago,” he said. “It’s a tried and true process that has served our industry well for over 150 years.”

Another company that utilizes an apprenticeship program is the Flathead Electric Cooperative in Kalispell and Libby. The Flathead Electric Cooperative has been around since 1938 and utilizes five apprenticeship programs: lineman, dispatcher, meterman, substation wireman and tree trimmer. Apprenticeships have offered the opportunity to promote from within the company.

“I think it gives a jumpstart to a company’s work practices, expectations, policies and procedures,” said Brian Plunkett, the engineering manager at Flathead Electric Cooperative “That 3 to 4 years of on the job training is a big advantage to hiring an external employee with the same experience. They’re learning for 3 to 4 years our company work practices, policies and procedures.”

In its seven offices across Montana, Anderson ZurMuehlen & Co. has a robust internship program. The certified public accounting and business services company partners with colleges to offer year-long internships and leadership training programs. With this structure in place, it was an easy decision to add an apprenticeship program.

“Our No. 1 reason for getting involved is that it was a way for us to give back to the Missoula community and the Missoula College at the University of Montana,” said John Cummings, the Human Resources director. “…It’s a way to support an alternative education path and to assist those non-traditional students to enroll in college, stay in college and graduate with a position. We see these benefits in our internship side and the apprenticeship side is not that different.”

According to Cummings, Anderson ZurMuehlen is the only company utilizing an apprenticeship program. The current apprentice has worked at the Missoula office for one year. Cummings said the current apprentice was selected after an interview process with students from the college.

Another benefit for Anderson ZurMuehlen is access to a new workforce as Montana’s unemployment rate continues to stay low.

“The lowering unemployment rate may play a factor as we move forward,” Cummings said. “This gives us access to another group of potential employees that we do hire on a regular basis. We don’t hire just CPAs, we hire a lot of folks. It allows us to tap into a new employment source.”

For Big Sky Resort, on the job training plays a large role in the success of one of Montana’s most popular ski resorts. The popular lodge and ski resort has utilized apprenticeships and journeymen in roles like electricians and plumbers. But one of the most important jobs it trains for is a ski lift maintenance mechanic.

“Lift maintenance mechanics are hard to find because there is no schooling or formal training that’s out there for that,” said Brian Berry, head of Human Resources. “ So we take our rockstar lift operators that want to stick around and they go into a lift maintenance mechanic helper role. We train them 2 to 3 years in order to get a grasp of what this job is, how to work on a lift, the ins
and outs of it, getting it started when it stops and how to keep ski lifts running.”

One of the challenges at Big Sky is the mix of older and newer lifts, said Berry. So when a lift breaks down during the busy season such as Christmas, it’s critical to have a qualified lift mechanic to get the hill running again.

While Berry says many people think you can’t make a career at a ski resort, on-the-job training shows investment in the team.

“I think it helps build a solid culture that you’re investing in your team members and want them to grow and learn,” Berry said. “That’s really important for us. We also have a culture of developing great people at our resort, whether that’s for a season or to grow you to be excellent hospitality.”

Apprenticeships will be highlighted during National Apprenticeship Week Nov. 12-18. How are you celebrating apprenticeships?

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