At age 10, Amber Burney wasn’t old enough to be a mother, but she had to act like one.
“My mother was a product of substance abuse,” said Burney, so “while my mother did her thing, I had to raise my two brothers.” For four years, until she was 14, she was the one who changed diapers, took her siblings to preschool, gave them baths, and carted them around wherever she went.
It’s a tough story, but Thursday, Burney’s graduation day, was more of a day for celebration. “Don’t let what’s going on around you determine who you are. Be better,” said Burney, who is now 24 and married with a strong goal to become a social worker so she can help others like her family. “I knew I wanted to go on a different path.”
Burney’s path began eight weeks ago when she and her husband, Clay Watkins, also 24, enrolled in a union-sponsored pre-apprentice program — the first certified one in the state to prepare people ages 17 to 24 for apprenticeships as direct-care personnel in behavioral health, caring for the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, and people with substance-abuse issues. They will receive paid on-the-job training, related classroom instruction, and college credits.
“These are folks who were out of school, out of work, and disconnected with a career path – and now they are on the road to a career path,” said Cheryl Feldman, executive director of the District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, which developed the pre-apprentice and apprenticeship programs. The fund was created by the National Union of Hospital & Health Care Employees (NUHHCE), District 1199C, and 11 Philadelphia hospitals in 1974. Now 50 hospitals and health-care organizations are partners with the union.
In the field of workforce development, apprenticeship programs are trending because they marry employer-paid on-the-job experience with classroom instruction. They are also in favor because unlike some failed training programs that deplete workers’ time and spirits by training them for nonexistent jobs, apprenticeships require employer participation.
It’s a model that has long been traditional in the building trades, but is spreading to other professions.
On Tuesday, for example, the Wistar Institute and Community College of Philadelphia announced an apprenticeship program for biomedical laboratory research technicians. And on Thursday, Gov. Wolf visited the Philadelphia Shipyard and the Philadelphia Shipyard Apprenticeship Training Academy, developed in 2004 to train the next generation of shipbuilders. Apprenticeship programs need to be certified by the state.
“They are hiring youth with no experience. That’s the whole point here,” Feldman said. “And now, they are on a collegiate career path.” At the end of a year, Burney and Watkins will have been paid. They will have had 300 hours of training and will acquire 24 college credits from Philadelphia University — on the way to the 60 needed for an associate’s degree. They’ll earn $10 to $15 an hour as apprentices and $13 to $16 an hour when they become journeymen, Feldman said.
Judith Dotzman, executive director of SPIN Inc., a Northeast Philadelphia nonprofit that works in behavioral health and early childhood education, said apprenticeship was “a new opportunity to address the long-term workforce crisis within human services.” Older workers are retiring. Low pay discourages younger people from entering or remaining in the field, particularly at a time of low unemployment when there are better-paying options. The national industry average turnover is 25 percent, Dotzman said.
“We are always looking for new workforce development strategies to improve recruitment and retention,” she said. “Targeting the youth population will introduce this very important career opportunity to them.”
Thursday’s 1199C graduation of 200 students at the Kimmel Center includes others in new non-traditional apprenticeship programs. For example, there are apprentices in early childhood education who gain credits toward an associate’s degree at the Community College of Philadelphia, with all those credits able to be transferred to Drexel University for a bachelor’s teaching degree and certificate in early childhood education.
Feldman said apprenticeship programs typically include mentors, which helps guide the apprentices, but also develops leadership qualities in the organization. “It’s a win-win,”she said.
Watkins said that he and his classmates, all of them 24 or younger, come to the program with their own stories of trauma. In his case, it was a vicious beating as a teenager, his mother’s death from cancer, and the loss of his childhood home to foreclosure.
“Our trauma, whether minuscule or large, has put us here for a reason,” he said. “What I have to offer is understanding, compassion, empathy, sympathy. You name it. I’m giving it.”