After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and spending four years coaching football, James Johnson realized he wasn’t passionate about becoming a full-time coach. In seeking out other opportunities, he stumbled upon a new apprenticeship program at College of DuPage, Project Hire-Ed.

“There was an information session within the hour, so I took that as a sign and quickly headed to campus,” he said. “The benefits that were laid out were almost too good to be true — companies pay for your school and books, you get paid to go to class, and you gain crucial experience. I entered the program and didn’t look back.”

Project Hire-Ed is helping local employers build a skilled workforce through an earn-and-learn model. This workforce development initiative helps community employers address the challenges they’ve had in finding talent while also helping students learn the skills they need to jumpstart their careers. The initial Project Hire-Ed program offers seven job tracks in manufacturing machining, manufacturing CNC operator, facility maintenance, industrial maintenance, HVACR service, welding, and electro-mechanical mechatronics.

Despite having little to no experience in the manufacturing sector, Johnson was hired by SWD Inc. as a maintenance technician apprentice.

“When I first started to apply for jobs in manufacturing, no one returned my calls because I had no experience,” he said. “However, that wasn’t a prerequisite for the program. The companies understand that and are still willing to invest in you. It makes me want to pay them back tenfold in the work and labor I can provide to them in return. And although I may be entering into a field I have little to no experience in, taking classes at COD is exposing me to a greater amount of information and hands-on techniques that are allowing me to increase my learning curve as opposed to solely being on the job.”

Soon, even more apprentices like Johnson will have similar career opportunities thanks to a newly awarded grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity. The approximately $220,000 joint federal/state grant will allow Project Hire-Ed to expand resources and accelerate COD’s progress towards apprenticeships, said Danielle Kuglin Seago, COD manager, Project-Hire Ed.

“This critical funding allows us the opportunity to explore new industry sectors,” she said. “In addition to applied technology, expansion will be explored with apprenticeships in areas such as cybersecurity, information technology, and health care. Our commitment is to have 25 registered apprentices completed or in progress by the end of the 18-month grant period.”

And with a new proposed bill by the House education committee to reauthorize the National Apprenticeship Act, $400 million in federal grants would be authorized for apprenticeships that would double to $800 million by 2025. The new bill has the potential to create more than one million new apprenticeships over the next five years.

Stable funding for apprenticeships is crucial to support and grow Project Hire-Ed, said Linda Sands-Vankerk, vice president of human resources and Project Hire-Ed.

“Sustainable funding would allow us to scale up apprenticeships,” she said. “Our recently awarded grant, along with a ramping up of federal funding, is really a game-changer,” she said. “It makes it easier for us to create apprenticeship opportunities as well as ensure that we meet high-quality standards, which will support the students’/apprentices’ success.”

In addition to creating apprenticeship opportunities, the first Project Hire-Ed program certificate in applied technology is currently under review by the Illinois Community College Board.

In the meantime, Project Hire-Ed participants take courses and receive college credit. Pending ICCB approval, they'll walk away from COD with not only training and a job, but a 30 credit hour certificate. Additionally, all courses are stackable. Should an apprentice choose to pursue additional credentials, such as an associate degree, he or she is easily able to do so.

“From the students’ perspective, this is a great opportunity for them to not only learn skills in an area that they want to pursue from a career standpoint but also have a job and have a job immediately,” Sands-Vankerk said.

Forbes reported that for the class of 2018, the average debt per borrower was $28,565, making the national outstanding student loan debt $1.52 trillion. But students in the Project-Hire program receive a competitive salary with benefits from the onset, and their education is free, as it is paid for by the employer, according to Kuglin Seago.

As a member of Project-Hire Ed’s first cohort, Johnson said he sees himself as a trailblazer.

“COD, the companies we work for, and we apprentices have to be patient, learn what we can, and make it better for those that come after us in this process,” he said. “I’m grateful for the broad range of fields and classes we are being exposed to, because everything is brand new and I’m able to understand what I enjoy and want to pursue through hands-on experience.”

Learn more about program eligibility, certificate offering, and coursework via a June 23 seminar. Registration is required. For more information, visit