Tri-County Mechanical and Electrical in Helena was among the businesses across the state that received awards from the Montana Department of Labor for their apprenticeship initiatives Wednesday.
As part of National Apprenticeship week, Montana Labor Commissioner Galen Hollenbaugh and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney handed out the labor department's first-ever awards recognizing commitment to apprenticeships.
The event was held at Tri-County Mechanical and Electrical, which was named the 2019 Montana Apprenticeship Employer of the Year. The Helena-based business was founded in 1972 and has offered apprenticeships for over 30 years. The business currently has 24 apprentices in Helena, Butte, Havre, Bozeman, Great Falls and Wyoming.
"I think it's appropriate to have it hosted in a place like this," Hollenbaugh said. "Matt and Kris really know the value of apprenticeships."
Owners Matt and Kris Lane said they find apprenticeships important due to the opportunities they provide young people. Matt actually started as a plumbing apprentice at Tri-County in 1994 after completing his military service. In 2008, the Lanes wound up buying the business from the Nichols family.
"It was very important," said Matt, about keeping the apprenticeship program alive. "Especially coming up through the ranks myself. It provides an opportunity for a well-paying career."
Matt said the economy in Montana supports their company and they try to work with contractors to expand their reach with the apprenticeships they offer. Working with Dick Anderson Construction, a Helena-based contractor, is how the business extended its reach all the way to Wyoming.
The couple's son Gus Deschamps is now a plumbing apprentice at Tri-County and he swears by the program. With approximately 1 1/2 years to go, Deschamps touted the experience provided in a hands-on situation.
"It's amazing what you can learn in four years," Deschamps said. "You do a lot of schooling and a lot of hands-on work. You learn a lot on the job site."
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Deschamps said he believes the classroom portion of his apprenticeship is a vital component to the success of an apprenticeship. However, Deschamps feels he learns even more from the hands-on field experience. Deschamps said apprenticeships like his are a great option for those unsure of what to do once they graduate high school. Coming from a 22-year-old who owns a home and has access to health care and two union pensions, it's hard to argue.
"To get right out of high school and have a paying job and no student debt is a big deal," Deschamps said.
Tri-County offers five-year apprenticeships in electrical engineering and plumbing. Additionally, they offer a four-year apprenticeship in sheet metal engineering. It is the first business to be honored by the labor department for its commitment to apprenticeship programs.
"Investing in a skilled workforce is also an investment in our state's economy," Cooney said. "Ninety percent of apprentices work in Montana after graduating."
Cooney shared that apprenticeships are at an all-time high in the state with 659 new apprentices this year. Apprenticeships are also expanding with new opportunities in information technology, health care and even industries like brewing beer. Cooney said the number of women in apprenticeships is rapidly rising, and there are currently 196 veteran apprentices in Montana.
In addition to honoring Tri-County, the labor department also honored the Montana Health Network with the Emerging Apprenticeship Industry Excellence award for being the largest and most rapidly growing new apprenticeship industry in Montana. The 2019 Apprentice Sponsor of the Year award was given to the Montana Sheet Metal Workers Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee. The JTC is currently one of the largest sponsors of apprenticeships in the state working with businesses like Tri-County.
Cooney said these inaugural awards celebrate the success of apprenticeships in Montana. He called apprenticeships "one of the best tools for fighting workforce shortage" and said "workers will continue to be in high demand and apprenticeships provide training for diverse and high demand jobs, all while earning a paycheck."
Hollenbaugh said apprenticeships like the ones honored Wednesday are a big boost to the Montana economy. He believes they support overall economic growth of both Montana and the United States.