In stories of decades past, people tell of learning a trade through an apprenticeship.

That path to a better job still exists in the building trades, and some factories and other workplaces are embracing it again as they try to fill job openings. With retirements surging because of demographics and a job market tighter than most have seen in a generation, Minnesota firms are struggling to fill 142,000 job openings.

The dilemma leaves factory bosses desperate for skilled workers and hunting for apprentices to hire, train, equip with valuable credentials and retain long term.

The trend spells huge opportunities for job hunters — provided they know what skills are in hot demand and where to get training. Thanks to a flurry of state, federal and company commitments, the number of manufacturing, information technology and health care apprenticeships is swelling.

The Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative (MAI) received a large grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in 2015 with the goal of getting 100 companies to hire 1,000 apprentices by the end of 2020. The state provides firms in the fields of advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care, IT and transportation with a $5,000 grant for each apprentice to help cover training costs that can be $11,000 a person.

About 35 companies have signed up, employing 320 MAI apprentices who will gain industry-recognized credentials.

A second state training program, called Pipeline, gives $5,000 grants so companies can teach existing workers the skills necessary to climb the career ladder. There are 67 Pipeline companies with 1,003 trainees.

Determined to increase participation, state officials are aggressively marketing the training programs and visiting employers and trade schools to spread the word that training opportunities abound.

"Apprenticeship Minnesota is super busy right now. We have been promoting the Apprenticeship Minnesota website through social media and it has taken off," said Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry spokesman James Honerman.

Early apprenticeship adopters included Fridley metal stamper E.J. Ajax, roof shingle maker Owens Corning in Minneapolis and building-glass maker Viracon in Owatonna. Metro Transit; AGCO, a tractor maker in Jackson; and defense contractor Alliance Machine in Elk River recently joined them.

Each company created two-year formal apprenticeships to produce state-certified bus drivers, machinists, electricians and welders with the help of local colleges.

Other firms, such as the milling and plastics injection firm Protolabs, and Ultra Machining in Monticello, now have a stream of Pipeline trainees learning manufacturing skills that can launch well-paying careers.

Ultra Machining is currently training 12 people who have never worked in a factory to become machinists. One trainee used to run a pizza joint but is now learning to run complex manufacturing machines, said Ultra Machining President Eric Gibson. The training program "is fantastic," he said.

Skills for a lifetime

At Protolabs, which runs a plastics injection molding plant in Rosemount, Cody Zempel, 27, graduated as an associate mold process technician after seven months of classroom and factory training as part of the Pipeline program.

Zempel worked at a Holiday gas station and at Burger King in Rosemount before joining Proto­labs as an entry-level worker four years ago. He became a mold technician trainee in December 2017 and graduated just a few months ago with a 20 percent bump in pay.

"Plastics is nothing I ever thought I would be working in," he said. But now, "I developed a skill and want to keep learning. I have made it a long way. I have established a career here for sure. My advice to others is to go for it."

Zempel knew right away the training program was a fit and was so excited about his new career path, he proposed to his girlfriend three days after training started. The wedding is next month.

The training program has equally rewarded Protolabs, said Renee Conklin, Protolabs' vice president of human resources. The company, which also makes precision-milled steel and 3-D printed products, added 1,900 workers in five years and needs more.

"Because we are a high-tech manufacturer, we are hiring as many technical staffers as we can," Conklin said. "A mold technician is a high-skilled, technical role and very difficult to recruit for," so the in-house training program was created.

Protolabs' investment in the training helped teach factory rookies all about hydraulics, seals, resins, robots, molding and how to ensure quality, she said.

With state help, the corporate training commitments and curriculum have created "a great workforce development tool," said Rick Martagon, an Apprenticeship Minnesota program administrator.

Apprentices gain skills and credentials that last a lifetime, and can end up in new careers that pay more than their previous jobs.

Meanwhile, employers like apprenticeships and training grants because they can give them an edge to recruit good employees.

"As an employer, you can offer your potential [hire] a mentor, training and a path to certification the moment they walk through your door. You are offering something your competitors don't," Martagon said. The program also builds employee loyalty "because you've shown you are willing to invest in them."

Expense is worth it

Two years ago, Owens Corning was struggling with turnover in its maintenance department.

To curb the exodus, managers asked 115 factory workers if any were interested in an intense two-year maintenance apprenticeship program. Three workers signed up, said Taylor Juza, human resource leader for the company.

The first apprentice recently graduated to first class mechanic. The other two are making their way through a 6,000-hour training program at Owens Corning's factory and 144 hours of classwork at Hennepin Technical College. Two more apprentices begin the program this year.

Each apprentice learns electrical skills, the inner workings of everything from forklifts to boilers, and then exits the apprenticeship with a nationally recognized credential, Juza said. It costs Owens Corning $7,000 per trainee, but the expense is worth it because it has solved the turnover problem.

Alliance Machine in Elk River recently doubled its staff to 50 and expects to double again in five years. Like Owens, it won an MAI grant last year.

The defense and aerospace contractor has workers Jake Collins and Kenneth Smith studying to become NIMS (National Institute for Metalworking Skills) certified machinists. Their apprenticeships require 2,000 hours of on-the-job training at Alliance Machine and 144 hours of classes with Tooling U-SME, an online training school that works with manufacturers.

They learn "blueprint reading, geometrical dimensioning and tolerancing and safety training," said Greg Hofstede, Alliance Machine's manager of operational excellence. "They finish with a national credential. It's a good baseline for someone looking for a career in machining or manufacturing."

New apprentices can make $16 an hour and $21 by the time they graduate, he said.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725