Burgeoning apprentice program at Missoula College looks to ease labor shortage

Dylan Rogness, the apprenticeship liaison at Missoula College, is working to build the number of Missoula businesses looking for apprentices, as well as the number of students enlisted in the program. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

It was nearly three years ago when the head of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry stood at a Missoula business to discuss the state’s emerging labor shortage, one where the number of jobs is outpacing the workers available to fill them.

While the state’s unemployment rate dipped to 4 percent in April, continued job growth combined with retiring Baby Boomers and a growing economy could drive Montana’s rate of unemployment down to a scant 2 percent by 2026.

“The workforce shortage we have right now and coming up in five or 10 years will be horrific,” said Dylan Rogness, the apprenticeship liaison at Missoula College. “Companies are already having to poach from each other. The benefits of apprenticeships are huge right now.”

While apprenticeships won’t alone solve a problem partially rooted in demographics, it could help some industries build a pipeline of up-and-coming workers, and it won’t need to reinvent the wheel to do so.

Back in 2015, Missoula College received a $15 million state grant to bring health care education to rural parts the state. At the time, Rogness said, health care apprenticeships were rare, though there’s now nearly 200 apprentices working across more than 15 health fields in Montana.

Rogness was hired full time in April to develop a similar program using those degrees already offered at Missoula College. In other words, it’s his task to grow the number of students looking for an industry-specific job during (and after) college, along with the number of companies looking for trained employees.

“I’m taking all the programs we have here and figuring out if we can turn them into an apprenticeship program,” he said. “Health care has been really successful and my job now is to expand the employer partnerships and build a pool of apprentices by going to K-12 and plugging the pipeline.”

Before Rogness took the job as the apprenticeship liaison at Missoula College, the school had already made inroads building its accounting tech program – the largest of the school’s apprenticeship programs.

Now, with Rogness focused on the task at hand, the program has expanded to seven business partners, and six of them will have an apprentice by the end of the month.

Under the program, students complete the required on-the-job training alongside an appointed mentor. They also earn a paycheck as they complete their two-year degree.

“It’s a way for a lot of students who need to work to be able to support their families and go to school,” said Rogness. “But it also creates a really good incentive by giving the student relevant industry experience while they’re in school rather than going to accounting tech while flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”

While accounting tech is firmly established and poised for additional growth, Rogness is working to build apprenticeships in information technology, surgical technology, medical claims and culinary arts, which now has two apprentices working at an undisclosed luxury resort in western Montana.

He’s also eyeing programs in the industrial arts, including welding and sustainable constructional technology. Business sponsors for paralegal are also being sought, he said.

“I’m really trying to increase the available industries and number of employers in the industries that can house apprentices,” Rogness said. “Me and my partner at the (Department of Labor and Industry) are also going back into K-12 to try and fill these pools up.”

The workforce shortage isn’t a new twist challenging Montana’s economic future. In 2016, the subject headlined the Missoula Chamber of Commerce’s state of the community event, during which one state expert projected a future unemployment rate of 1 percent.

As it stands, an estimated 130,000 Montana workers are expected to retire in the next decade, but only 123,000 workers between 16 and 24 are available to take their place. If the labor shortage unfolds as predicted, it could slow the state’s economic growth, as businesses won’t be able to expand or create new products due to a lack of workers.

While Rogness admits the Missoula College program won’t alone solve the problem, it could help certain businesses bring some certainty to an otherwise uncertain future.

“It’s a community effort, and because of that, Missoula College will be an important piece of building the community on the industry side and the workforce side,” Rogness said. “Three or four years down the road, this will be a hub for Missoula County to spit out talented and qualified employees. Right now, its about formalizing the pipeline.”