Despite the fact that demand for workers has never been higher, Christian Gray still believes there’s untapped potential out there that Iowa employers never see in a job interview – largely because they only interview people who apply for jobs bearing two- or four-year degrees.

Gray, who two years ago formed a new company aimed at helping Iowa employers establish a wide range of apprenticeships, believes on-the-job learning can help firms access a new, untapped pipeline of potential workers.

All you have to do, he contends, is make the education free. Then, you open the door to thousands more potential employees.

“Our goal is to give every high school student a debt-free option,” Gray said. “We’re trying to eliminate the cost of education as a barrier to employment.”

Gray’s company, Axis U (originally formed as Apprenticeship America), is using free online classes to provide the classroom training for apprenticeships in welding, CNC, HVAC, and warehouse logistics – with more programs, including plumbing, electrical, and health care fields, in the planning stages. The company works with government regulators to create content that’s free to students and meets federal apprenticeship requirements. It also partners with Iowa employers to outline hand-on training and to make sure that each class meets local needs.

Students, who come to Axis U through a variety of relationships with Iowa nonprofits, pay nothing for the academic part of their learning. Iowa companies take care of the hands-on, on-the-job training using a field manual that Axis U prepares.

In theory, the relationships make it easier for students to get a leg up on new careers and reduces the modest effort that employers otherwise would spend to put apprenticeship programs in place.

“Employers, they don’t have the time,” Gray said. “They don’t want to do any of this… We just kind of take all that headache off of them.”

Steve Havemann, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul in Des Moines, believes Axis U’s approach eventually could open the door for large-scale workforce training. Havemann’s organization is a nonprofit dedicated to assisting those in poverty and helping them become more self-sufficient.

Last year, St. Vincent de Paul served more than 33,000 clients through education and workforce programs, Havemann said, but most clients were too focused on their immediate financial needs to contemplate something like a year-long apprenticeship. Eventually, that will change.

The charity, which receives 52 percent of its funding by operating two Des Moines thrift stores, has sent its own employees through the Axis U retail apprenticeship program and found it helpful, he said.

“I think once our case managers are used to working with these programs and within these parameters, and once the neighbors they’re serving realize that this is possible, then I think this could help,” Havemann said. “I think it’s coming.”

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