Apprenticeship Programs Brewing New Opportunities

A growing three-way partnership between the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship, Bridge Valley Community and Technical College and West Virginia’s craft brew industry is not just turning out new employees but changing perceptions of women’s roles in the popular industry.

A little over a year ago while a new apprenticeship program was brewing at Bridge Valley, Samantha Fox was feeling burnt out working as an academic advisor at Marshall University.

While looking for a new career path, Fox reexamined her hobbies and passions. Up to that point, Fox had been homebrewing for five years and then she had a casual conversation with a colleague at the Department of Labor, a conversation that would send her on a whole new career path in a matter of weeks.

It was fortuitous timing, shortly thereafter Fox found herself enrolled in Bridge Valley Community and Technical College’s new craft brew program, the first one of its kind in West Virginia.

“Samantha is the first of our craft brewing program to land a brewers apprenticeship,” Michael Parsons, Bridge Valley’s Brew Tech program coordinator. “She is a fantastic student and is doing well in both endeavors. She’s very passionate about this industry.”

The program not only benefits Fox in giving her on-the-job training at Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company but also helps reinforce her education in the Bridge Valley program.

Parsons said that students can apply to apprenticeships through the Bridge Valley program or get placed in Bridge Valley’s craft brew program via an apprenticeship.

The offset costs breweries can earn by partnering with Bridge Valley’s and the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship programs makes everything a win-win for all involved.

While Fox still has a ways to go to finish her apprenticeship, she enjoys the crossover of learning she experiences through the classroom and working full time at GVBC.

Fox said to complete her apprenticeship she has to complete 2,000 hours of work and she’ll finish the Bridge Valley craft brewing program after two years. Upon completion of her apprenticeship and college work, Fox will have all the qualifications needed to land a job in the industry she has a passion for.

“I’ll even be qualified to open my own brewery,” Fox said.

Fox stated that her apprenticeship is primarily focusing on the beer brewing process but working at GVBC is allowing her to learn other roles and duties like cleaning the fermenters and helping to maintain equipment.

From a hobby where she brewed 5 gallons of beer at a time to helping brew 90 barrel batches, Fox is learning all the ins and outs of brewing on a mass production level.

“It’s really satisfying seeing the result of your work, seeing all the cans and kegs lined up around the brewery or in the coolers and knowing that people are going to get to enjoy the result of that work,” Fox said.

Karen Wade, apprenticeship and training representative with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship in Charleston, W.Va., said that her office continues to develop apprenticeship programs with employers.

“The apprenticeship program is the department’s best-kept secret,” Wade said. “We work to see how apprenticeships can help both employers and employees.”

Wade who has shown great passion for helping women be placed in both traditional and non-traditional apprenticeships, loves helping everyone who comes through the department land apprenticeships, “young or old.”

However, she did state that over the years of 2014-2019 the number of female applicants for the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship program has increased by 219%.

“It’s not a common thing to see a woman do a hard labor job,” Fox said of her and her female coworkers’ experiences. “We get a lot of amazing comments for the work we do here.”

“We lift heavy kegs, load the grain and physically we have no problems at all,” Fox said. “We love the production work”

Fox’s coworker, Kandyce Kirk is the brewery’s canning line manager.

“I love the mechanical side of things,” Kirk said. “I love troubleshooting and fixing and learning on the job.”

Annie Smead, taproom and hospitality manager at GVBC said that it’s empowering to see more women at every level of the brewery’s operations.

“With all this attention, it lets others know you don’t have to fit a stereotype for any job,” Smead said.

Wade went on to describe that the apprenticeship program benefits everyone involved due to a skills gap in today’s workforce.

“Companies are struggling to find skilled workers,” Wade said.

Apprenticeships allow those to find education and work experiences when they feel college may not be the right path for them.

“College is not always best for everyone,” Wade stated, saying that 95% of those who participate in apprenticeships retain long-term employment and on average end up with a starting salary of $70,000.

While there are apprenticeship opportunities across thousands of industries, Parsons stated that Bridge Valley’s craft brew program and apprenticeship partnerships are already growing.

“We’ve just placed another student from Pennsylvania with Berkeley Springs Brewing Company,” Parsons said.

And already the Bridge Valley program has more than doubled from 3 students in 2020 to 15 enrollees for the fall 2021 semester.

Breweries are also enrolling their employees in the program for more training and to offset costs, Parsons said.

“We’re anticipating having quite a few students this fall,” Parsons said, and they are still taking applications.

And the work hasn’t stopped, Parsons said they are talking with more brewers to take on more students.

The success and interest in Bridge Valley’s craft brewing program is credited in part by West Virginia’s craft brewing industry being so resilient during the pandemic and being the state’s second-fastest-growing manufacturing industry, Parsons stated.

“The industry was really ingenuitive during the pandemic,” Parsons said. “They found different ways to continue selling their products during the pandemic.”

If you’re interested in finding more about apprenticeship programs, check out https://www.dol.gov/agencies/eta/apprenticeship

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