State leaders joined one of Missoula's top employers on Thursday to announce a growing statewide partnership to bring more Montanans into the workforce by preparing them for employment in a changing job market.

Gov. Steve Bullock and Pam Bucy, director of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, joined Montana Rail Link President Tom Walsh at company headquarters to highlight the state's Montana Registered Apprenticeship program.

The effort – a result of the Main Street Montana Project – represents a new public-private partnership that has already enlisted 700 sponsors and is currently training nearly 1,400 state workers in 50 occupations across the state.

“Apprenticeships are a vital tool for creating a pipeline of trained workers,” Bullock said. “These time-honored programs really do provide apprentices with a chance to earn a paycheck and support a family while learning the hard and soft skills needed to have a good-paying job in a rapidly changing economy.”

The Main Street Montana Project was established in 2013 after Bullock took office. Over the past three years, it has brought business and community leaders together from across the state to identify ways to grow Montana's industries.

While Montana has seen its unemployment rate fall below the national average, and while it continues to rank high for its tax climate and entrepreneurship, state leaders foresee a shortage of skilled workers in the coming years. The new apprenticeship program aims to address the shortage, particularly in new and emerging fields.

“The first pillar of the Main Street Project is to train tomorrow's workforce for today,” Bullock said. “The need for an educated and well-trained workforce was the most consistent message we heard from all corners and all constituencies.”

Montana Rail Link stands among the state's companies that have joined the Montana Registered Apprenticeship program. MRL currently has 29 employees enlisted in the program, including several veterans.

Walsh called the program a vital link to the company's future, especially as it pertains to locomotive machinists and electricians.

“They're really specialized jobs that can't be learned in the schools as easily as they can on the shop floor,” Walsh said. “It's very specific to our industry. The partnership with the Department of Labor and Industry has been a good one.”

According to program statistics, apprentice graduates earn an average annual wage of $53,500 while more than 78 percent of its graduates remain in the state. The program is currently working with roughly 700 state businesses training 1,400 workers.

“Apprenticeships are a vital career path for people looking to join Montana's workforce,” Bucy said. “What we hear from the Main Street Project and the thousands of people we talk to, over 60 percent of their recommendations are workforce related.”

The list of sponsors enrolled in the program cover a range of occupations, from construction to data analytics. Bucey said the state will soon add radiology, phlebotomy and nursing to the list.

“We're going to be encountering a pretty critical (workforce) shortage in the next year,” Bucy said. “Apprenticeships are an incredible solution to that. We don't have two or four or six years to let people step out of the workforce to get their training. What we need is for them to be trained and to be producing while getting that training.”

Walsh, who serves as co-chair on the Transportation Key Industry Network – a branch of Bullock's Main Street Montana Project – believes the new program will help grow the state's economy.

“These types of collaborations show how the private and public sectors can move at the speed of business and increase opportunities for job training across the state,” he said.