Chattanooga’s apprenticeship program praised as a national model

Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / Michelle Rhee, a former Washington, D.C., chancellor who co-founded BuildWithin to promote apprenticeship learning, praised Chattanooga on Monday as a national model for collaborating on workforce development.
Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / Michelle Rhee, a former Washington, D.C., chancellor who co-founded BuildWithin to promote apprenticeship learning, praised Chattanooga on Monday as a national model for collaborating on workforce development.

Unable to afford a four-year college degree, Emily Daily initially pursued training to become an esthetician skin care specialist.

But Daily said her true passion was to pursue a technical career. To help pay her bills, she hired on at Unum Corp. through a temp agency in 2019 to work the group long-term care division where she began to develop some of her computer skills. But last year, Daily got what she calls "probably the best thing in my life" with a chance to enter a new apprenticeship program to improve her computer programming skills.

As one of only a handful of Apprenticeship Innovation Districts across America, Chattanooga was able to offer Daily the opportunity to both work and learn a new skill under a federal grant from the consulting firm BuildWithin.

"I am both earning and learning at the same time and developing skills needed by my employer," the 28-year-old programming apprentice told local employers gathered Monday to mark the first day of National Apprenticeship Week at the Chattanooga Construction Center. "It's a great chance to learn and grow my skills and get paid while doing it."

Daily is among the first of what local officials hope will be hundreds of apprentices learning on the job with online courses provided by BuildWithin and with support from area employers, schools and foundations.

Michelle Rhee, a former Washington, D.C., chancellor who co-founded BuildWithin to promote more apprenticeship learning, traveled to Chattanooga on Monday to praise the local effort for leading in its collaboration among the school district, local government and business community. She said Hamilton County's Future Ready Institutes, which pair local employers and high schools, and the jointly funded Chattanooga Construction Center, which is training both high school students and adults in a variety of building trades, are prime examples of the potential for apprenticeship training.

"What is happening here in Chattanooga is very special," Rhee told the crowd. "What we have built together in Chattanooga over the past year is really setting the example to the rest of the world."

(READ MORE: Construction Career Center builds next generation of builders)

Changing job market

As new technologies develop and labor markets evolve, Rhee said the job market is changing and new skills are needed for both those entering the workforce and those whose jobs are being changed by artificial intelligence and other technologies.

"The days of going to school for 16 years and then going out into the workforce to try to find a job is becoming a bit antiquated," she said. "Employers and workers are thinking about careers and training in a much more dynamic way."

The rising cost of traditional four-year degrees, which were long believed to be the pathway to success for young Americans, are yielding ground to the more traditional educational approach of apprenticeships and learning on the job. A 2019 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found the extra wealth attributable to college education has declined. Combined with demographic changes, overall college enrollment has declined by nearly 2 million students and has dropped especially among men.

But apprenticeships are growing, nearly doubling for men in the past decade, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Last November, BuildWithin won a $7.9 million federal grant to help work with five school districts to provide online courses and apprenticeship programs for a variety of jobs, ranging from data specialists to restaurant managers.

(READ MORE: Unemployment in Chattanooga fell to an all-time low in April)

In its first year in Chattanooga, apprenticeships have been developed for 21 types of jobs under the new Apprenticeship Works program, and the county is currently offering 40 other programs through schools, labor unions and trade schools, according to Walton Robinson, executive director for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Apprenticeship Hub.

"With these apprenticeship programs, we truly believe that if we can train our students well in a career that supplies a thriving wage and that can be life changing for many families in our community," Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson said.

Chattanooga was selected for the federal grant program a year ago, and this week a new website for Apprenticeship Works was launched. Both Hamilton County Mayor West0n Wamp, a former member of the Tennessee Board of Regents, and Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, the chair of a statewide workforce development group, voiced strong support for the apprenticeship program as a means of preparing and upskilling workers for the jobs of today and the future.

"This is something that both Mayor Kelly and I feel is central to the quality of life in our community, " Wamp said.

Rhee said such mayoral support and the leadership from the Benwood Foundation and its director, Sarah Morgan, in apprenticeship learning is unusual in most cities. But to meet the labor needs of the future, Rhee said apprenticeships will be even more important as job skills evolve and skilled labor shortages are likely to linger.

Danela LaCelle, an assistant vice president of delivery at Unum who says she developed some of her early technical computer skills as an apprentice, said such programs help employers elevate the skills of employees whom they know through their existing jobs have a good work ethic and understand the company culture.

"There are so many talented and special people out there and if you just try to get someone with a four-year degree you are going to miss out on a tremendous amount of talent in the workforce," she said at the event.

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.

  photo  Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / Emily Daily, center, talks Monday about how a federally funded apprenticeship program at her employer is helping her learn new programming skills while still earning money working. Danela LaCelle, left, is an assistant vice president of delivery at Unum who has worked with apprentices like Daily. Taylor Hall, right, is the CEO of Datably who is using the apprenticeship program to help fill some of his company's staffing needs.

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