PELLA — The success of local work-based learning and apprenticeship programs have gained attention in Washington, D.C., particularly with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

DeVos, along with Gov. Kim Reynolds, visited Vermeer Corporation on Friday to learn how the Career Academy of Pella, in partnership with local businesses and schools, is helping students hone their skills to provide alternative employment opportunities.

“We know that for decades, the not-so-subtle message to young people was, 'you must go to a four-year college in order to be successful as an adult,'" says DeVos. “And we know for a fact that there are so many opportunities that do not require that commitment and that investment, certainly not immediately in your life, if ever.”

Apprenticeship programs in the Career Academy of Pella are designed to provide opportunities that will benefit students beyond high school, including on-the-job training with local employers alongside classroom instruction. The academy offers registered apprenticeship programs in culinary arts, engineering, nursing and welding. Within the past year, the program has expanded its offerings for certificate apprenticeships in early childhood education and IT.

The academy is funded by grants from Future Ready Iowa, an initiative to build Iowa’s talent pipeline, with additional guidance and support from Iowa Workforce Development. The program was first piloted in 2018 at Vermeer, where Chris Vander Velden, a 2019 Pella High School graduate, became the first registered apprentice through the academy. Vander Velden earned his credentials in the welding program earlier this year.

According to Reynolds, nearly 1,700 employers across the state are currently working with almost 8,000 apprentices. Local employers who participate in the program are Central College, Pella Area Community and Economic Alliance, Co-line Manufacturing, LDJ Manufacturing, Liberty Street Kitchen, Pella Corporation, Precision Inc., Vermeer Corporation, Weiler Inc., Wesley Life and others.

“It [Future Ready Iowa] has a goal of having 70% of Iowans having educational training beyond high school by the year 2025,” says Reynolds.

Approximately 60% of Iowa’s current workforce meets the program’s education and training criteria, according to Reynolds. She believes the state’s numbers could potentially increase by 6-7% based on 2020 data.

DeVos and Reynolds heard from local and state education and business leaders during a virtual roundtable discussion. According to Vermeer President and CEO Jason Andringa, the biggest issue facing the manufacturing industry is finding a skilled workforce. Joe Murphy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council, echoed Andringa in other employment areas across the state.

“We’re keen on the future by focusing heavily on work-based learning opportunities and strategies to align the future of workforce needs with today’s current student population, which we think will be a key for business expansion and economic growth in our state,” says Murphy.

DeVos and Reynolds also had the opportunity to tinker with Vermeer’s work-based learning simulators, including airbrush painting and welding, with mentors and students. Overall, DeVos says she is impressed with the program.

“Seeing the progress in Iowa is really impressive, and I think others around the country can learn lessons from what Iowans are doing,” says DeVos. “I think Iowa is a model [for other] states.”

Emily Hawk can be reached at 641-672-2581 or by email at ehawk@oskyherald.com.

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