Growing up in Iowa, Lauren Wieser had a hobbyist’s interest in all things mechanical, whether dismantling her bicycle for fun or tinkering underneath the hood of the family truck.
“It was mostly about how the engine worked,” says Wieser, 27. “I knew the engine powered the wheels, but I liked the fine mechanics of it, too.”
Wieser has taken her childhood fascination into the working world, courtesy of a diesel truck technology program hosted by Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. Gleaning the intricacies of diesel-based maintenance translated to an apprenticeship with a regional quarrying operation, where she repairs the dump truck engines crucial to the company’s bottom line.
“I’ve replaced wheel bearings, and I know how to wire taillights,” Wieser says. “I’ve done backup alarms and head gasket seals. There’s lots of work I’ve done. I love every second of it.”
Bringing on changes
Wieser’s story aside, apprenticing in a skilled trade is an opportunity that has not been fully accessed by women. Per 2019 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up only about 12% of the nation’s apprenticeships, despite comprising half the U.S. workforce. Additionally, female apprentices are concentrated mostly in social service occupations, as compared to male peers who gravitate more toward construction and other skilled labor.
The Kirkwood program that put Wieser to work is one example of how community colleges are connecting women to male-dominated apprenticeships. However, two-year institutions are still challenged to bridge post-pandemic labor force gaps while overcoming dug-in attitudes about a woman’s place in the working world.
The Expanding Community College Apprenticeships (ECCA) initiative is one facet of this ongoing effort. Led by the American Association of Community Colleges, with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the program aims to increase apprentice programs and services among member institutions. Over the next three years, the project will infuse 16,000 new apprentices into the U.S. workforce.
Kirkwood is among the ECCA member schools working to involve more women in a proven and lucrative training model, particularly in skilled trades which encompass the vast majority of the country’s apprenticeship programs.
Women already comprise a high percentage of the healthcare workforce, a pipeline supported by Kirkwood’s nursing and pharmacy technician programming. Skilled trade apprenticeships are also on the menu, with diesel tech joining construction, HVAC installation, truck driving and more.
Students who complete DOL-approved apprenticeship programs can automatically articulate 46 credits toward completion of a skilled trades associate of applied science degree at Kirkwood. As classes are available during the day, evening and online, participants are empowered to take courses while finishing their paid apprenticeship training.
“With the worker shortage, we’re hearing from employers about how we need to think outside the box and find other ways to recruit and train qualified folks,” says Amy Lasack, senior director of corporate training at Kirkwood. “Apprenticeships were one solution that came out of those conversations. Employers really seemed to want to try it.”
Awareness about opportunities
Generally, Kirkwood apprentices are pursuing a second career, or were hired on as an apprentice while in the middle of a credential program. Kirkwood’s construction apprenticeship, for example, draws twenty-something job seekers as well as 40-year-old careerists.
The hope is these students are as skilled as someone one our employers were looking to hire a few years ago when the workforce wasn’t as strapped,” Lasack says.
“Before the pandemic, employers wanted someone with a two-year degree. They’ve made some concessions now because they’re struggling to find talent,” she says.
Partner companies want women within their walls, a request that Kirkwood is striving to meet, though not without some difficulty. The college has three women currently enrolled in skilled trade areas — Wieser in diesel tech and two others in construction — a number that program administrators would love to expand further.
“We’re hearing fantastic things from our companies about how detail-oriented the women they hire are,” Lasack says. “The challenge is creating awareness about the opportunities out there. Women just aren’t exposed to these apprenticeships, and don’t know the skills they need to succeed in them.”