Strong Workforce Apprenticeship Program in L.A. County Drawing Rave Reviews

Ed Coghlan
Contributing Editor & Special Correspondent, California Forward

When Jeffrey Forrest, recently arrived from Missouri, took his job at the College of the Canyons in 2016, his chancellor told him, “We need an apprenticeship program.”

Forrest, the vice president for economic and workforce development, began to talk with employers and attend meetings and he soon ran into Tracy DiFilippis, apprenticeship coordinator an sector strategies manager for Goodwill of Southern California.

“I need to work with her,” Forrest said.

DiFillippis was well known to many manufacturers through her work at Goodwill Industries and she knew well that apprenticeship programs were needed by many manufacturers in northern Los Angeles County. The formation of SWAG—The Strong Workforce Apprenticeship Group—soon followed and linked a community college, a community-based organization and  employers in need.

“It’s hard for smaller employers to maintain everything you need to do in order to have a sustainable apprenticeship program,” said Tom Molnar, president of Lee’s Enterprise, a manufacturer in Chatsworth. “Knowing that Tracy was involved and a community college was ready to help made the decision to join easy.”

Forrest pointed that employers need both current employees who can learn certain skills in the SWAG program and future employees, as more and more machinists and other retire from their jobs.
The need is glaring.

“Every manufacturing company knows there is a massive shortage of machinists and no one is doing anything about it,” said Molnar. “The pipeline of future workers is empty and we are seeing more and more machinists reaching retirement age.”

Another SWAG employer, Bill Boden, general manager of Repairtech International in Van Nuys, said the program has been great because Forrest and DiFillippis “work with us, listen to us and created a relevant curriculum that is of value to both student and employer.”

The SWAG Program has a funding stream that has been missing. There are 39,000 small manufacturers in California who have 20 or less employees and employers don’t have the resources or the time to invest in an apprenticeship program. But investments by the California Community Colleges and its Strong Workforce Program, as well as other state and federal funding are allowing programs like SWAG to be conceived and, importantly, be sustained.

One of the keys to success is that the funding allows employees to utilize Tooling U , a respected online training organization that reinforces that employees are gaining a relevant skills-based education.

Right now, there are eight employers in SWAG with another dozen in line to join the group in the near future. The student requirements are 144 hours a year of required online coursework, which some of the employers are actually paying their employees to take during work time.
Forrest pointed out that at the College of the Canyons some early skepticism by the faculty has given way to enthusiastic support.

“They see that the program is working, that employers are happy and that students are learning relevant, current skills that can help them advance their careers,” he said.

There are still a number of community colleges in the state that aren’t doing active employer engagement. We asked Forrest for a prescription that a community college interested in replicating this type of program in other parts of California and he pointed out three factors that he believes need to exist:

1. You need to know and understand the real needs of employers
2. You need to be able to engage industry
3. You need good partnerships with community-based organizations (like Goodwill) and Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs)

The SWAG program is growing and expanding outside manufacturing—early education and water technology are a couple of job sectors that have interest, according to Forrest.

For the manufacturing employers, the SWAG program is something that is working and they are hopeful—even optimistic—that the funding will continue.

For Repairtech’s Boden, he thinks more employers—who might think they don’t have the time– should take advantage of the opportunity. He has seen many of his staff inspired to continue their education since the program started.

“For many of us that don’t have the time and the resources to conduct our own apprenticeship programs, to find partners like Jeffrey and Tracy has taken the scariness out of the experience.”

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