08/07/2012 07:01 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2012

Maricopa Community Colleges Look To An Old Idea -- Apprenticeships -- For New Workers

The word "apprentice" might conjure up images more of Johnny Tremain than the aerospace industry. But in Phoenix, a coalition of high-tech manufacturers developed a modern-day take on the worker training programs to bring a new generation of students into the workforce.

To do so, the group is facing off with a stereotype: Manufacturing is a dying industry more likely to create a job in Guangzhou than in Phoenix. Using the Arizona Precision Manufacturing Apprenticeship Program, announced in June and currently screening applications, the coalition aims to close one of the nation's most pronounced gaps between the years of education employers want and what employees have.

Maricopa Community Colleges, which will administrate the program, said it is not aware of other similar apprenticeships operating as a collaboration between community colleges and small precision manufacturers.

Manufacturing has seen a surprising boom even as the economic downturn lingers. Employers are hiring -- but some say it is getting harder to find the right people for the job.

"The root cause behind all of that is there are not enough people going into the business in the first place," said Mark Weathers, the president and CEO of Excalibur Precision Machining, in Maricopa County. "Many kids are being pushed toward college degrees, and because manufacturing's got a reputation for outsourcing and being dirty and dangerous, there are not a lot of kids going into that."

Weathers, whose company makes products for the aerospace and defense industries with a tolerance for error as small as 1/10,000th of an inch, needs highly skilled workers who have both classroom engineering knowledge and on-the-job know-how. Nationally, the Manufacturing Institute reports that skilled workers are the hardest for employers to find, with 83 percent of employers reporting moderate or serious shortages.

There is an ongoing argument over what to do about that. Some economists suggest that employers should simply raise wages to attract more workers. In May 2011, the national mean wage for machinists was $40,520 as opposed to $31,610 in 2000, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, which means wages have not kept pace with inflation.

But Weathers argued that simply raising wages would not be a solution, at least near Phoenix.

"What we do right now is steal each other's employees," he said. "We're just trading employees back and forth. The issue is there's not enough."

So he would like to train more. But for an operation like Excalibur, which employs 25, setting up and running the administration for an apprenticeship program to train those highly skilled workers would be prohibitively expensive. Unions, which used to run many apprenticeship programs in the Northeast and Midwest before downsizing, are nearly non-existent in Arizona.

To find fresh blood, Weathers and the trade group he used to head, the Arizona Tooling and Machining Assoc., turned to the Maricopa Community Colleges system, which boasts annual enrollments in the neighborhood of 260,000 students online and at satellite campuses near Phoenix.

Together, the trade group and the colleges hit on a solution for small manufacturers like Weathers': The companies would fork over $1 per worker per hour to the colleges to run the program. Along with a one-year grant from the Department of Labor, the colleges would screen high school graduates for the program and match them with employers.

"The benefit to the employer is that they don't have to spend any money on recruiting and advertising," said Rick Hansen, associate director for the Maricopa Community Colleges' Center for Workforce Development. On the student's side, "it is essentially a guaranteed job as long as they can get through all those hurdles."

Every year, the program, which is still in its initial selection phase, will put 25 students in apprenticeships. They'll start out making $9 an hour and after three years, in which they will receive a minimum 5,600 hours of training at their jobs and 144 hours in the classroom every year, they'll be guaranteed at least $17 an hour.

Not including books, the college classes will cost students between $600 and $700 per year in tuition and fees.

Hansen said if the program proves successful, he hopes it becomes "a template, if you would, that we can move to any other parts of the state and for that matter any other part of the country."