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Building Careers

Registered apprenticeship program underway at Washburn Tech

Chris Thoreson works on a machine at HF Mixing Group

Chris Thoreson programs a computer on a mill that makes rubber mixing equipment at HF Mixing Group. Thoreson started as an apprentice there this fall and is working toward a certificate in machine/tool technology at Washburn Tech as part of the program.

From The Ichabod - Winter 2024
Story and photos by Jeremy Wangler

Chris Thoreson was looking for a new career that would provide excitement, solid pay and chances for growth. After hearing about the new registered apprenticeship program at Washburn Institute of Technology, he knew he found a fitting opportunity.

“I had been working retail and I wanted to move on and do something completely different,” he said. “I decided machine work sounded interesting and I was really interested in the apprenticeship. I thought it would be a good opportunity to work while I learn.”

The Kansas Department of Commerce opened the Office of Registered Apprenticeship in September 2022. Just a few weeks later, Washburn Tech started its program and hired Courtenay Wills as associate director of apprenticeships and custom training to bring area employers onboard. When registered, employers provide apprentices 2,000 hours a year of on-the-job training and 144 hours of paid education toward a Washburn Tech certificate related to their field.

Thoreson started as an apprentice this fall at HF Mixing Group and enrolled in the machine/tool technology program at Washburn Tech. In 2025, he’ll graduate with a program certificate and an apprenticeship certificate, which is recognized nationwide.

“We got lucky with our first candidate, Chris,” said plant manager Justin Powell, c ’05. “He’s working on programming on a mill, which is a pretty big step for us. We didn’t expect to be here this soon.”

Justin Powell and Chris Thoreson pose at HF Mixing Group

(Justin Powell, c ’05 [left], and Chris Thoreson pose inside HF Mixing Group, where Powell is plant manager.) 

Powell hopes their first apprenticeship is the start of something big for his company that makes rubber mixing equipment for clients including major tire companies.

“We're seeing a decline in trades, not just machine, but all trades everywhere,” Powell said. “This is taking a step to ensure our succession planning internally and to be a contributing factor in the industry here in northeast Kansas. It’s moving employees along, taking the skillset they learn at Tech or in the field, building on that and improving on that. You can’t move forward if you’re not looking forward.”

The apprenticeship program offers an attractive and competitive choice for potential employees.

“A lot of people want to go into the field, but they have to work,” Wills said. “This is a way to get your career started, get an education without debt and be fully employed the entire time.”

Courtenay Wills poses outside Washburn Tech

(Courtenay Wills began working at Washburn Tech in 2022 to develop a registered apprenticeship program. As of December 2023, HF Mixing Group, Frito Lay, Mars, Community Care Network of Kansas and about 12 daycare centers are set up to take on apprentices through Washburn Tech.)

It also gives employers a recruitment tool by showing potential hires how far they can go in their company. A U.S. Department of Labor report said 94% of apprentices stay with their company after the program.

“Because you invested in them, they will stay,” she said.

Shawna Loh, human resources manager at HF Mixing Group, hopes apprentices become ambassadors to the trade and her company.

“They get first-hand experience, go back into the classroom and talk to students and machinists from other companies and say, ‘There is work, good pay, good benefits and opportunities in this field,’” Loh said.

Chris Thoreson works on a machine at HF Mixing Group

Wills, who has worked in technical training and workforce development throughout her career, says Washburn Tech is perfectly positioned to help meet the region’s workforce demands. The school offers a wide range of certificates, and several area employers are hiring in these fields.

Also, Washburn Tech trains high school students as they begin their career and explore post-secondary education options. Thirty-two school districts bus high school students to the campus daily, and early childhood education is a popular program for high schoolers, and now, a popular apprenticeship option.

“There’s a huge childcare shortage,” Wills said. "If parents don’t have childcare, they can’t work. And then we have another problem.”

Wills spent her first year creating application and certification processes and building relationships with community members. HF Mixing Group, Frito Lay, Mars, Community Care Network of Kansas and about 12 daycare centers are on board, and Wills hopes other companies will follow.

“We want to make sure employers’ needs are being met,” Wills said. “It’s all about getting them what they need and getting the apprentices the training they need.”

She finds the work rewarding and is encouraged by the early success.

“Anytime I can do something to help a student come out debt free with a degree or a certificate, that's a great feeling,” she said. “And being able to help the community I work in is a really good feeling.”

Winter 2024 The Ichabod magazine cover with picture of the bell tower and snow fallen on campus

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions


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