ApprenticeshipTN readies for statewide conference


by Scott Robertson

Tyra Copas

Tyra Copas has had a full year. When Copas was named state apprenticeship director by the Tennessee Department of Labor in Sept. 2019, she knew she would be working with Tennessee’s employers to help them build registered apprenticeship programs to meet their hiring challenges. She did not know she’d be doing it with a backdrop of COVID-19 complicating matters. When COVID began impacting employment, Copas made her Kingsport home office the state headquarters of ApprenticeshipTN and took the lead on Tennessee Talent Exchange, a statewide program to connect employers with immediate hiring needs to job seekers.

Put simply, Copas says, she works to help businesses develop apprenticeship programs and develop their own talent pipelines. To date, ApprenticeshipTN has achieved a 22 percent growth rate this year. “We’re right at 6,700 apprentices in Tennessee,” Copas says. “This time last year we were at 5,500.”

“When an employer has an open position, they typically have two options,” Copas says. “They can buy talent or build talent. When buying talent, they pay for the experience, which typically means a higher salary. That experienced person may also bring with them some good traits and some bad traits, depending on the training they received on the job. When building talent, the employer sets the standard levels, and the individuals are trained from the beginning on the employer’s processes and equipment from the start. In a building talent model, salary aligns with knowledge and skills, so as the employee’s knowledge and skills increase, they are compensated with higher wages.”   

In the ApprenticeshipTN model, there is no cost to any individual entering into an apprenticeship. Employers assume that cost. “The benefit comes when they have high levels of retention, a skilled workforce, dedicated labor who are not leaving the company to go across the street for a dollar more an hour,” Copas says. “We have about a 94 percent retention rate.”

One battle Copas has had to fight is the misconception that apprenticeships are only for large manufacturing operations. “We have put in apprenticeship programs for a winery,” she says. “We’ve put in apprenticeship programs in cosmetology for barbers. We’ve put in apprenticeship programs in the hospitality space, for bartenders, front-end managers and cooks. It can be anything and pretty much everything.”

That having been said, there are certain positions that more readily lend themselves to apprenticeships. Copas says she asks a few leading questions when trying to help employers decide if creating an apprenticeship program is right for their company. I ask if they have:

• Jobs for which it is difficult to find workers with the right skills?

• Positions with high turnover?

• Occupations where a highly skilled workforce is retiring?

• Challenges helping workers keep pace with continuing advances?

• Positions requiring skills that can be learned on the job?

• Difficulty in attracting new and more diverse talent pools?

The next step in promoting apprenticeships to both potential apprentices and employers is the Discover ApprenticeshipTN Conference, a two-hour virtual event slated for Nov. 10. It will be free to attend and can be accessed by registering here.

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