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VCU launches apprenticeship program, providing opportunities and valuable skills to future tradespeople

Melissa Yancey, one of five apprentices in VCU Facilities Management's new apprenticeship program...
Melissa Yancey, one of five apprentices in VCU Facilities Management's new apprenticeship program, is learning to become a steamfitter and working in the MCV Campus Steam Plant. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

Only 1.6 percent of the nation’s steamfitters are women, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Labor statistics. As part of a new apprenticeship program at Virginia Commonwealth University, Melissa Yancey is on her way to joining their ranks.

“I like working with my hands and I’m learning a new skill,” said Yancey, who began working in the MCV Campus Steam Plant in January. “I wanted to learn a trade, and to have a job that's more physical than stationary. I guess I just saw a lot of potential to working at VCU.”

Yancey, who is the only woman working in the steam plant, has been learning how to weld, use a variety of tools, install and repair pipes, and troubleshoot the system that provides steam for the MCV campus, the VCU Medical Center and several nearby state government buildings.

“It’s been great,” she said. “They all treat me like one of the guys.”

Yancey is one of five apprentices hired this year as part of a new initiative of VCU Facilities Management to bolster the university’s workforce of skilled tradespeople. The apprentices are training to become a certified heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician, electrician, locksmith and plumber.

“We had the idea: How about growing our own [certified tradespeople]?” said Richard Sliwoski, associate vice president for Facilities Management. “Why don't we bring them in as apprentices, get them to understand VCU, have them learn about what we want our culture to be and have them grow to love VCU very early on? They'll see that they have a future here, and that they have a path to make more money as they start doing better and gain more experience.”

Jonathan Jones is an apprentice HVAC technician through the new apprenticeship program, working out of a Facilities Management shop that serves academic and administration buildings along the Franklin Street corridor. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)
Jonathan Jones is an apprentice HVAC technician through the new apprenticeship program, working out of a Facilities Management shop that serves academic and administration buildings along the Franklin Street corridor. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

Under the four-year apprenticeship program, individuals interested in pursuing a career as a skilled tradesman receive structured on-the-job training, technical education and related classroom instruction.

They work as full-time university and academic professional employees with salary and benefits, learning from licensed journeymen, mentors, supervisors and other Facilities Management employees to gain the skills and knowledge to become highly qualified in their chosen trade. Among the skills they learn are various codes, safety rules, regulations and procedures, appropriate use of tools, reading and interpreting documentation, troubleshooting, teamwork and communication skills.

When the program began accepting applications in October, nearly 290 people applied for the initial five apprenticeships.

“We were looking for people that wanted careers in the trades,” said Shedana "Dana" Henry, human resources manager in Facilities Management, who is leading implementation of the apprenticeship program. “Whether they were young, old, had previous experience or not, but wanted a change. Maybe they had dabbled in one of the trades and felt like it would be a good fit but didn't have the opportunity to actually go to school and actually obtain a journeyman's [certification].”

The inaugural class of apprentices joined VCU in January and have been working under their mentors. In August and September, they will begin classes, paid for by VCU. The funding is coming from Facilities Management’s regular operations budget.

The program is similar to the University of Virginia’s longstanding apprenticeship program. U.Va.’s program has graduated roughly 170 workers, with 145 still employed at the university and nearly 20 percent serving in supervisory roles, according to U.Va.

“I think what we're going to get out of [this apprenticeship program] are great employees who will be loyal to VCU,” Henry said. “They see that we have invested into them and they're going to invest back into VCU, especially with the new HR plan [the Great Place HR redesign]. They'll see the benefits of working at VCU.”

Last week, Jones and co-workers in Facilities Management responded to a call in Founder's Hall to switch out a malfunctioning fan cooling unit. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)
Last week, Jones and co-workers in Facilities Management responded to a call in Founder's Hall to switch out a malfunctioning fan cooling unit. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

Jonathan Jones, who grew up in Richmond, had been working as a temp with Tradesmen International and was on a job to install trim in a Monroe Park campus facility when a VCU Facilities Management employee suggested that he consider applying for the apprenticeship program.

Jones was accepted and is now an apprentice HVAC technician, working out of a shop that serves academic and administration buildings along the Franklin Street corridor, including the President’s House, Finance and Administration, Athletics and the School of the Arts.

“The people here at VCU are awesome,” Jones said. “Everyone has treated me with respect, everybody is real kind at the shop. If I ask for help, everyone is happy to help me, you know what I mean? Everybody from the electricians, the plumbers, everybody is helping one another. Anytime anybody needs help. Not just me, but we all help one another and I just think it's great.”

The best part of the apprenticeship, he said, is how it makes him feel each day.

“I've been learning how to use a wrench and power tools. I didn't pick up a wrench or a power tool until I was 24, 25. Now I’ve been learning about electricity, piping, plumbing, the science behind how AC works, even picking up a little bit of other trades as well,” Jones said. “It makes me feel smart at the end of the day. I’m using my brain and solving problems. It’s awesome.”

I like working with my hands and I’m learning a new skill. I wanted to learn a trade, and to have a job thats more physical than stationary. I guess I just saw a lot of potential to working at VCU.

For Yancey, the apprenticeship is providing her with the opportunity to start a new career. She graduated from VCU two years ago, and previously worked as a sales rep for Pepsi. But she wanted something different, fulfilling and sustainable for the long term.

“I decided to go into steam fitting because I felt like it was a trade that wasn't really going to disappear, while all of the positions that I was applying to kind of seem like they might one day be automated. So I decided to stick with VCU and apply myself to a trade.”

So far, Yancey said, the experience has been great, with everyone at the steam plant helping one another.

“Sometimes when I can't physically do something, they’ll all pitch in. But, I mean, sometimes it'll take a couple of the guys to open a valve or break away a piece of pipe so I don't feel that bad. It’s a buddy system and we all help each other.

“It's pretty intense,” she added. “But I'm getting the hang of it.”