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COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (AP) — Finding a pathway from high school to the right career can be difficult, but an apprenticeship can shorten the journey.

With a registered apprenticeship, a worker receives on-the-job training while completing classroom instruction and is paid during training. For people already in the workforce, it can be an opportunity to move up the ladder.

The Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil reports Iowa is a national leader in registered apprenticeships. As of early November, Iowa had 846 active registered apprenticeship programs and 8,720 registered apprentices, according to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office. Reynolds was recently appointed to serve on the President’s Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion.

“Growing registered apprenticeship opportunities will help us reach our Future Ready Iowa goal of 70 percent of the workforce having education or training beyond high school by the year 2025,” she said in a release.

Warren Distribution, which packages private-label automotive fluids, offers one of about 10 registered apprenticeship programs in Council Bluffs. The program provides training for work as an electromechanical technician, who sets up, maintains, repairs, modifies and updates machines in the plant, said training director Shawn Wellman.

Candidates apply and complete tests before they are selected, including an aptitude test administered by Iowa Workforce Development, Wellman said. Once accepted, apprentices spend part of their time working at the plant under the tutelage of a journeyman technician and part of their time attending classes at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

The company pays for tuition and books. At the end of the three-year program (which may soon change to a two-year program), they will have everything done for an associate degree except 16 hours of general education classes. If they want to finish their degree, they are eligible for tuition reimbursement with a grade of C or higher.

“It’s a good program,” he said.

The company started offering registered apprenticeships in 2009 and registered again in 2016 with a revised program, Wellman said.

“We’ve had 13 apprentices go through the program,” he said.

Warren currently has four apprentices, Wellman said.

“These four guys have been outstanding,” he said of the current group.

Jorge Hernandez of Omaha was new to the field when he started as a machine operator at Warren two years ago but had worked on cars as a hobby and felt that mechanical things came easily to him. He applied and tested for an apprenticeship in fall 2016 as a way to move up and started as an apprenticeship earlier this year. He likes the work he’s doing.

“Right now, we’re taking basic electricity,” Hernandez said.

They’ll also study math, hydraulics and pneumatics, Wellman said.

At Warren, which employs about 145 people at its Council Bluffs plant, apprentices start at $17 an hour and receive an increase to $20 an hour or more upon completion, depending on their skills and experience, he said. While the program was initially only open to Warren employees, the company now accepts candidates from outside its walls, too.

“It’s good for everybody, I think,” Wellman said. “We teach them what they need to know here. A lot of companies are doing apprenticeship programs. The industry’s finding out more and more that a four-year degree doesn’t fit everybody.”

Most of the city’s other registered apprenticeships are with plumbing firms, including Perfect Plumbing, according to a list on the Iowa Workforce Development website.

Apprenticeships are business as usual for plumbers, who must have four years of instruction and four years of job experience in order to become licensed, said Frank Bilello, co-owner of Perfect Plumbing. And, as at Warren, all candidates need to have is a high school diploma.

“I want to get them with zero knowledge” so they haven’t learned any shortcuts yet, he said. “A lot of us who have been doing this for a while are pretty meticulous about how we do things. As for me, everything my guys learn, I teach them.”

But before hiring an apprentice, Bilello, a plumber for 17 years, interviews them at length.

“I scrutinize them,” he said. “I put them to the test.”

Bilello looks at their record, as well as their work history. He stays away from applicants with a history of drug use or criminal activity.

“The one thing I would stress to these young kids … keep their noses clean and really scrutinize who they go to work for and look at their history,” he said.

Bilello, who does both commercial and residential work, has his apprentices go on service calls and, in the past, has had them receive instruction from Tom Holmes at ABC Plumbing. But nothing beats learning by doing.

“Most of it you learn on the job,” he said. “I try to teach them patience, too. You’re going to make mistakes — and I want you to make them. You learn from them.”

Bilello has his current apprentices come in at about 7:30 a.m. and visit over breakfast.

“The company buys breakfast,” he said. “It creates a good work environment.”

Plumbing is a good field, Bilello said.

“The market is great for plumbers right now — but as far as being a business owner, you have to be careful who you work for,” he said.

If you own your own plumbing business and a customer can’t (or won’t) pay their bill, all you can do is take them to court — and then you rack up legal fees in a hurry, Bilello said. There’s less financial risk working for an established business.

For more information on registered apprenticeships, go to and click on “Registered Apprenticeships” under the “Resources” heading.


Information from: The Daily Nonpareil,