MILTON, W.Va. (AP) — With many industries across West Virginia still grappling with labor shortages, Blenko Glass in Milton has worked over the past year with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Department of Education and the West Virginia Department of Commerce to build and implement the first registered development Trained as a glass worker in West Virginia.
Recently, 12 workers at the 129-year-old glassmaker signed up for the program during a signing ceremony.
“The Blenko apprenticeship program is critical to our mission to preserve the history of glassmaking in West Virginia,” said David Wertz, site operations manager at Blenko Glass. “Without a steady stream of well-trained apprentice glass craftsmen, we run the risk of being pushed out of the craft altogether. That means we have a future and a chance to survive another 100 years and a chance to preserve the glassmaking heritage here in West Virginia.”
While demand for Blenko Glass remains strong, Wertz said establishing a program that incentivizes workers and recognizes them for their unique skills will help the company hire and retain its employees.
“We start with nine men and three women,” said Wertz. “We’re committed to increasing that number and we’re hungry for growth. Going forward, we look forward to a completely full production floor and 24/7 glassmaking like in the Blenko glory days. Not only will we create new jobs, but we will offer careers and benefits unprecedented in our industry.”
One of the first employees to sign on was 28-year-old John Shepherd, originally from Poca, West Virginia but residing in Lesage.
“Learning from people who have mastered this skill over the years is exciting and something I look forward to,” he said. “I like that you get college credit for completing the program.”
Glasswork training at Blenko is a mixture of on-the-job training from Blenko Glass’s master craftsmen, plus additional classroom instruction from experienced glassmaker and instructor Matt Urban, artist-in-residence and instructor at the Corning Glass Museum. Urban has also studied and worked with numerous glass masters, particularly from Murano, Italy, around the world.
At the signing ceremony, Blenko announced its funding through the Department of Economic Development’s Governor’s Guaranteed Workforce Program, a training reimbursement program. Additional funding for trainees comes from the department’s Apprenticeship in Motion grant.
“We also received a grant from the US Department of Labor for this program,” said David Rogers, senior manager for human resources and industry training at the West Virginia Department of Economic Development. “The company receives up to $2,000 per employee each year to help support training costs.”
West Virginia, which ranks fifth nationwide for the number of apprenticeships per capita, now has more than 5,000 active apprentices, according to Rogers. West Virginia was the second state to introduce a teacher training program called Grow Your Own, a trend now emerging across the country to help address teacher shortages, he said.
“We love being able to drive a part of this new apprenticeship program that passes on invaluable glassmaking knowledge from Blenko’s master craftsmen, while also allowing trainees this unique and debt-free career path into the magical ancient craft of glassmaking,” said Dave Lavender. the Apprenticeship in Motion program at the West Virginia Department of Economic Development. “Blenko Glass is a popular family business in West Virginia with an aging workforce, like many Mountain State companies. So we love being able to help stabilize and strengthen their workforce and train a new generation of craftsmen to continue the world-renowned craftsmanship for decades to come.”
This new Registered Apprenticeship program at Blenko was announced during the eighth annual National Apprenticeship Week taking place this week. The Federal Apprenticeship Week is taking place this year in honor of the 85th anniversary of the Federal Apprenticeship Act.
Blenko Glass received a certificate of registration from Karen Wade, Apprenticeship and Training Representative for the US Department of Labor’s Office of Education, who helped Blenko register his program.
“We’re excited to expand apprenticeships like this unique one at Blenko Glass and throughout West Virginia,” said Wade. “Apprenticeships are a proven model and over the years have proven to be a great recruiting and retention tool for all types of industries and companies, just like this new one here at Blenko Glass.”