Hands-on learning, one-on-one interaction, classroom studies and camaraderie are a few of the keys to an impactful career experience, as demonstrated by the inaugural year of the Phoenix Public Works Department’s Solid Waste Equipment Operators Apprenticeship Program.
In recent years, the Arizona city has faced a challenge similar to public works departments across the nation — a combination of retirements, competitive salaries elsewhere and the need for specialized licenses led to a shortage of qualified, quality solid waste equipment operators. Due to this need, the SWEO apprenticeship program was born.
“We figured instead of competing with all the industries that require a CDL (commercial driver’s license), we would focus less on competing for the small talent pool and instead create our own pool of talent by investing in our training team and bringing people from the outside in to train them from the ground up,” said Felipe Moreno, deputy public works director.
The first program of its kind in the nation, apprentices in the yearlong program learn the ins and outs of solid waste collection. SWEOs are charged with providing residential solid waste collection for over 400,000 Phoenix residents. This includes garbage, recycling, organics and bulk trash.
Moreno said the program requires no experience, and it asks only for solid work ethic and a good attitude from apprentices.
“Apprentices get their CDL in the first two months, and the rest of the year is (spent) learning the industry, safety, how we map the city, customer service and Phoenix culture in general,” Moreno said. “During that year, they underfill the position of an equipment operator and get experience in the vehicles with seasoned professionals.”
Upon completion of the program, apprentices are ready to join the workforce.
The first class was comprised of seven apprentices from various positions across the city.
“We chose internal applicants for our first class because we wanted every apprentice to have a landing place and a chance to go back to their old job in case things didn’t work out,” Moreno said. “However, they all graduated successfully and are still with us.”
This year, the program went external. In an effort to increase diversity of background and experience, the application for the apprenticeship program was promoted through the state’s website, the Phoenix Human Resources Department and partnerships throughout the city.
“We partnered with various nonprofits because we wanted to target our youth, veterans and organizations with nontraditional staffing,” Moreno said. “We’re trying really hard to create a pipeline of a talented, trained workforce for us and to diversify the workforce, reaching out to women and youth, letting them know this is an opportunity for them, as well.”
Of more than 300 applicants, seven were chosen for the 2018 class.
Moreno said aside from the opportunity to learn a trade and earn a CDL, apprentices are given a chance to get a jumpstart in a profession that could turn into a career and open doors for them down the line.
“We’re banking on getting these people in the door and selling them on what it is that we do,” Moreno said. “Sometimes, it’s not all about the pay. We have great benefits, a unique culture and a great pension system. We have the ability to grow you. Most of our staff were drivers at some point — this is the chance for you to get your foot in the door.”
Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, and the first class of apprentices is doing well in the workforce. In terms of future planning, Moreno said he’s taking it one day at a time, keeping in mind the resources available to him.
“Being a young program, we’re trying to grow into this slowly and graduate people who are ready to be great,” he said. “We would love to grow and expand the program, but we’re a few years out from that.
We need more resources — more people able to train the classes. Right now, we’re doing all of this with existing city resources. Any more than a handful of apprentices and we’re watering down the quality for quantity. We don’t want to do that.”
With the program only in its second year, Moreno admits he doesn’t have all the answers — but he’s happy to lend an ear and advice to other communities looking to implement something similar.
“We’re the first municipality in the country that’s doing this, but a lot of communities are reaching out to talk about it,” he said. “We’re willing to share our curriculum, infrastructure, logistics — we know this is a nationwide issue, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Go to people who are doing something similar to what you’re looking to do and pool your resources. We’re happy to help.”