The power of apprenticeships

By Leigh Keeton

An apprenticeship partnership between an Ohio college and Ford is making a difference in students’ lives.

Rhonda Williams had worked on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company for 25 years when an opportunity came along that she couldn’t turn down. Williams had earned a spot in the United Auto Workers (UAW)/Ford Motor Company Joint Apprenticeship program.

She took it without hesitation.

“I knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime for me,” she says. “Joining the apprenticeship program made official what I had been striving for all along – remaining employed at Ford while being afforded the opportunity to continuously learn.”

That learning opportunity takes place at Lorain County Community College (LCCC), which has partnered with Ford to offer the apprenticeship program for more than 20 years. Wanda Arroyo, UAW/Ford local joint apprentice representative, estimates that in that time nearly 1,000 Ford employees have trained at LCCC, learning a variety of trades including electrical, pipefitter, millwright, welding, toolmaker and industrial truck mechanic.

There are 75 employees in the program today, including Williams who is training to be an electrician. Her goal is to earn her journeyman’s card by fall 2021. It’s been rewarding and challenging at the same time.

“Managing the course work at LCCC and on-the-job training, as well as juggling family life has not been easy, but I know it’s worth it,” Williams says. “It’s rewarding to know that my kids are proud of me – as proud of me as I am of my father and family.”

Ford family ties

As a child, Williams watched her entire family head off to work at Ford. From her grandfather, who started there in the 1940s, to all five of her uncles and her aunt, to her own father; four generations of her family have worked for Ford. They have been assemblers, supervisors, human resource managers, information technology strategists and soon electricians.

“From the time I can remember, Ford has been a part of my life,” Williams says. “It has provided a good income and great benefits. As a child I knew I wanted to work at Ford like the rest my family.”

After graduating from Admiral King High school in 1987, she started working part-time at Ford’s Lorain assembly plant. A few years later, she landed a full-time job at the plant in Avon Lake and has been there since.

A win-win

The apprenticeship program is built for full-time employees. Tony Schweppe, manager of business engagement for LCCC, has worked closely with Arroyo to maintain the program, which can quickly adapt based on UAW/Ford’s dynamic workforce development needs.

“LCCC was able to not only identify the skillsets UAW/Ford needed the apprentices to learn, but customize the course offerings to meet the apprentices’ schedules,” Schweppe says.

Being tailormade for full-time workers makes scheduling classes simple, but the program itself challenges even the most diligent employees. Prospective apprentices must complete preparatory courses just to be considered. Once those are complete, UAW/Ford places them on an apprenticeship list with their preferred field of study noted. When their name comes up, they are offered a trade according to what’s needed at the time and within their interests.

Arroyo says the value for both employer and employees is unmistakable.

“Employees can attend college and receive pay for working in the trade that they’re striving to receive a journeyman’s card in,” Arroyo says. “It allows them to be more versatile and competitive.”

Expanding skills, building confidence

As Williams builds her skill set – she’s earned 510 school hours and 6,100 work hours so far – she’s making sure her course work aligns with the degrees she wants to earn, too. She’s on track to earn an associate of science degree and an associate of technical studies degree. Williams earned an associate of arts degree in 2007 from LCCC.

Williams says the supportive and inclusive environment at LCCC – especially in an industry where she’s often one of very few women – makes it easy to keep coming back to the college.

“I could not have come this far in the program without the help of fellow journeymen electricians training me on the job, and the help of the instructors at the college,” she says. “I’m grateful and thankful to everyone that has aided me in this process.”

Much like Williams, UAW/Ford sees a long-term relationship with LCCC, too.

“We strongly believe that LCCC is a crucial part of UAW/Ford’s apprenticeship program,” Arroyo says.  “So we’ll continue the partnership for years to come.”

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Leigh Keeton

is writer/project coordinator at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio.