It is half past 5 p.m., and Frank Chestnut is on his cellphone, talking to a reporter in Birmingham about an old practice that is making a comeback: the apprenticeship.
Chestnut manages Apprenticeship Alabama, a state Department of Commerce program in the Workforce Development division, and he is a member of the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association (AAMA) Board of Directors. Most days, his job takes him on the road across Alabama, he says, to talk with advanced manufacturers and other industries about registered apprenticeship programs as a strategy for cultivating the skilled workers they need.
“The mission of Apprenticeship Alabama is to ensure that businesses have the tools needed to develop industry-driven, registered apprenticeship programs for the workforce, ” he says. “We’re actively engaged with many stakeholders to increase high-skilled, high-demand careers by expanding registered apprenticeships and administering the apprenticeship tax credit to participating employers.”
Chestnut started down his own career path in high school, he says. As the oldest of three sons, he grew up in Selma. His father owned a small business selling ethnic hair care products. His mother operated a daycare center.
After he turned 16, Chestnut says that on Saturdays, he often drove his family’s company van to Montgomery to sell the products to salons and beauty supply stores.
He graduated from Selma High School in 1987 and, for a time, worked in sales at a cell phone store before enrolling at Faulkner University to study business. He says he chose the human resources concentration because he viewed it as the best way to use the skills he acquired as a salesman.
“You had to listen to people to find out what they truly needed, ” says Chestnut, “and I was able to see things from the perspective of a company and what fell under human resources. That led me down the path to human resources and then training.”
Chestnut earned his bachelor’s degree from Faulkner University in 1995 and landed a job as a utility worker at International Paper’s Riverdale Mill near Selma. He rose through the ranks to become a systems trainer, juggling a number of duties, from directing work schedules to making sure the workers followed the company’s safety practices.
He later earned a master’s degree in human resource management from Troy University in 2002, and the following year, in 2003, he accepted a position writing training materials and curriculum for AIDT in Montgomery. AIDT is the Alabama Department of Commerce Workforce Development division that develops recruitment and training opportunities for workers.
At AIDT, he became a project support coordinator and a training and assessment developer. He eventually worked his way up to management, overseeing efforts by various AIDT divisions and client companies like Mercedes, Hyundai, Honda, GE and Airbus to improve their workplace processes.
It was during that time, says Chestnut, that he began wrestling with an idea to do more with his life.
“I kept asking myself how I could help my community, ” says Chestnut. “What have I learned at AIDT that I could give back to my community?”
So Chestnut ran for the Selma City Schools Board of Education. He won and served two terms from 2009 to 2016.
“It was an eye-opening experience, ” says Chestnut, “and it made me realize that education was in a silo. … Many businesses would share with me that they felt the curriculum was outdated and 10 years behind what they were doing in business and industry.”
Consequently, he says while on the school board, he says he saw the need for high school students to take part in activities like job shadowing and company tours to expose them early on to different careers.
Since leaving the school board in 2016, however, and taking on the job of manager of Apprenticeship Alabama after its launch in 2017, Chestnut has set his focus on apprenticeships. He says more employers in the trades are turning to on-the-job training because skilled laborers of the baby boom generation are retiring, and employers are scrambling to find new, skilled workers.
Apprenticeship programs, he says, can help fill the skills gap in high-demand careers in areas like automotive technology and industrial maintenance.
“The knowledge transfer for the company is immediate and so is the return on their investment, ” he says. “If an employer wishes to reduce turnover, increase productivity, develop highly trained employees and create a pipeline for skilled workers, then an apprenticeship is a great solution.”
In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor states that the average retention for apprentices who complete their programs is 91 percent.
Chestnut says that while there are many apprenticeship programs in existence, Apprenticeship Alabama promotes and supports programs registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, a designation which Chestnut calls the “gold standard, ” since registered programs have to meet Labor Department’s rigorous standards.
For instance, registered programs require that employers provide apprentices with a structured on-the-job training regimen in which they designate experienced mentor employees to teach the apprentices the skills needed to become competent workers.
“This form of training results in an industry-recognized credential that certifies occupational proficiency, ” Chestnut says. “A registered apprenticeship allows your business to grow its own talent while the apprentice has the opportunity to earn while they learn. It’s a win-win.”
Moreover, employers must place apprentices on progressive wage schedules that increase as their skill levels rise. They also have to collaborate with an education partner such as a community college or other training provider so that apprentices can gain relevant classroom instruction and the degrees or certifications they will need to succeed in their career.
“One of the most important components has to be the classroom training, ” says Chestnut.
“We reach out mainly to the Alabama Community College System to discover the employer’s options.”
Chestnut says that traveling the state, the Apprenticeship Alabama team does presentations that allow “us to help employers realize a solution to closing their skills gap. For some employers, it’s a matter of informing them and talking with them about the benefits, while on the other hand, many have approached us because they want to be more proactive about the future of their workforce.”
Through Apprenticeship Alabama, Department of Labor-registered programs can earn a state tax credit of $1, 000 for each qualified apprentice for up to four years, and employers may hire up to five apprentices annually.
The Labor Department reported more than 533, 000 apprentices in the United States in 2017 and a 42 percent rise in the number of apprentices since 2013. In 2017, Alabama had 114 active, registered apprenticeship programs and 4, 905 apprentices, up from 96 registered programs and 4, 225 active apprentices in 2016.
Automotive suppliers in particular have contacted his office to set up apprenticeship programs, Chestnut says.
“The suppliers are realizing that, ‘If I’m going to be competitive and keep some talent, I’d better have a registered apprenticeship program, ’” he says.
Chestnut has maintained a connection with the auto industry by representing AIDT on the AAMA’s board of directors for the past 11 years. He is also an eight-year member of the Selma-Dallas County Industrial Development Authority’s Board.
“Frank is a strong player on the AAMA board, ” says AAMA President Ron Davis. “He’s well connected to the industry and is always looking at ways to meet the needs of the industry.”
Chestnut is married, and he and his wife, Kesha, are raising three children in Selma. When he is not on the road for his job, he says his favorite pastimes are taking vacations around the country and abroad and traveling to see NFL and college football games.
But on this day, at half past 5 p.m., Chestnut is in travel full travel mode, spreading the word about apprenticeships. He is in Mobile one day, Tuskegee another day, or somewhere in north Alabama on other days, he says.
“I’m proud that we’re playing a role in educating employers on the benefits of registered apprenticeship programs, ” he says. “In my opinion, increasing awareness of these programs results in individuals being able to support their families.”
Text By Gail Allyn Short/Photos courtesy AIDT