First glass worker apprenticeship starts at Blenko

Apprentice Tabby Locascio works at Blenko Glass before an apprentice signing ceremony with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship and the West Virginia Department of Economic Development on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, at Blenko Glass in Milton, W.Va. (Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

MILTON, W.Va. (AP) — As many industries across West Virginia are still dealing with worker shortages, Blenko Glass in Milton has been working for the past year with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship and the West Virginia Department of Economic Development to build and implement the first registered glass worker apprenticeship in West Virginia.

Recently, 12 workers at the 129-year-old glassmaking company signed up for the program during a celebratory signing ceremony.

“The apprentice program at Blenko is critical to our mission of preserving West Virginia’s glassmaking history,” said David Wertz, a site operations director at Blenko Glass. “Without a constant stream of well trained apprentice glassworkers, we are at risk of simply being snuffed out of the trade entirely. This means we will have a future and a chance to survive another 100 years and a chance to preserve the legacy of making glass here in West Virginia.”

While the demand for Blenko Glass remains strong, Wertz said establishing a program that incentivizes workers and recognizes them for their unique skills will help the company to recruit and retain its employees.

“We are starting with nine men and three women,” Wertz said. “We are looking to add to that number, and we are hungry for growth. In the future, we look forward to having a completely full production floor and round-the-clock glassmaking like in the glory days of Blenko. We will not only be creating new jobs, but offering careers and benefits that are unheard of in our industry.”

One of the first employees to sign up was 28-year-old John Shepherd, originally from Poca, West Virginia, but living in Lesage.

“Getting to learn from people who have mastered this skill over the years is exciting and something I am looking forward to,” he said. “I like that you get college credits for completing the program as well.”

Blenko’s glass worker apprenticeship consists of a blend of on-the-job training by Blenko Glass’ master craftsmen, as well as additional, classroom instruction from veteran glassmaker and instructor Matt Urban, who has been an artist-in-residence and instructor at the Corning Museum of Glass. Urban has also studied and worked around the world with numerous master glassmakers specifically from Murano, Italy.

At the signing ceremony, Blenko announced its funding through the Department of Economic Development’s Governor’s Guaranteed Workforce program, a training reimbursement program. Additional funding for apprentices comes from the department’s Apprenticeship in Motion grant.

“We also got a grant through the U.S. Department of Labor for this program,” said David Rogers, senior manager for workforce and industry training with the West Virginia Department of Economic Development. “The company will receive up to $2,000 per employee each year to assist with training costs.”

In West Virginia, which ranks fifth in the nation for apprenticeships per capita, according to Rogers, there are now more than 5,000 active apprentices. West Virginia was the second state to implement a teachers apprenticeship called Grow Your Own, a trend now developing across the country to address teacher shortages, he said.

“We love being able to help fuel part of this new apprenticeship program that’s passing down invaluable glassmaking knowledge from Blenko’s master craftsmen, while also giving apprentices this unique and debt-free career pathway to the magical ancient craft of glassmaking,” said Dave Lavender, of the Apprenticeship in Motion program with the West Virginia Department of Economic Development. “Blenko Glass is a beloved West Virginia heirloom, family-owned company with an aging workforce, like many Mountain State companies. So we love being able to help stabilize and strengthen their workforce, scaling-up a new generation of artisans to carry on the world-renowned artistry for decades to come.”

This new registered apprenticeship program at Blenko was announced during the eighth annual National Apprenticeship Week taking place this week. National Apprenticeship Week is being held this year in honor of the 85th anniversary of the National Apprenticeship Act.

Blenko Glass received a certificate of registration from Karen Wade, apprenticeship and training representative of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, who helped Blenko register its program.

“We are really excited to expand apprenticeships like this unique one at Blenko Glass and all across West Virginia,” Wade said. “Apprenticeships are a time-proven model and have shown over the years they are a great recruitment and retention tool for all types of industries and businesses, just like this new one here at Blenko Glass.”