On construction sites, apprentice carpenters work beside journeyman pros. Now CVS, following a national trend, wants to use a similar model to train pharmacy techs in Pennsylvania.
In other states, CVS's pharmacy tech apprenticeship programs have cut turnover, crucial in a tightening labor market.
It sounds promising to Colleen Orr, a nurse who teaches health and pharmacy technology at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, a public school whose students live mostly in poverty.
"My kids, if they continue with this program, it'll change their lives," said Orr.
On Wednesday, her students made a field trip to the Philadelphia Job Corps Life Science Institute, where they learned, just in time for National Apprenticeship Week, about the new job-learning program offered by their school, the Job Corps, and CVS to create pharmacy technicians.
Pharmacy techs can earn up to $60,000 a year at the most advanced level, Stephanie Gambone, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Youth Network, told the students Wednesday.
Wednesday's announcement comes at a time of growing interest in apprentice programs. Presidents Obama and Trump may not agree on much, but both have promoted apprenticeships as an alternative to college.
"Unions in the skilled trades have kept this model and it has worked for them," said Mark Genua, who heads apprenticeship programs for Philadelphia Works, the agency that links job-seekers to employers and develops training programs. "Now we want to take this apprenticeship model and apply it to all occupations."
Genua said that in 2015, Obama launched the American Apprenticeship Initiative with the goal of doubling apprentices to 600,000. That goal has been surpassed with 700,000 apprentices nationwide, including 14,000 in Pennsylvania.
In Philadelphia, District 1199C's Training and Upgrading Fund has apprentice programs for behavioral health technicians and community health workers. Philly Shipyard trains apprentices as does the Urban Technology Project, which focuses on programming and technical support.
Developed by District 21 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, the apprenticeship program at Finishing Trades Institute of the Mid-Atlantic Institute in Northeast Philadelphia comes with associate degrees.
Such programs must gain government approval with a developed curriculum. By definition, apprentices are company employees who combine paid classroom training with on-the-job practice.
"We need you to do our business and to serve our customers," Leslie Reis, CVS Health's senior advisor for workforce initiatives, told the students. CVS's program will provide earn-and-learn jobs for 70 apprentices.
Nationwide, one in four, or 61,000, of CVS's 247,000 employees is a retail pharmacy tech, a specialized clerk working the pharmacy counter. CVS also employs pharmacy technicians in its pharmacy distribution centers and its specialty infusion business, Corum CVS.
Companywide, Reis said, turnover averages 52 percent a year in a tightening labor market. But turnover drops to 15 percent to 20 percent for participants in CVS's workforce programs, she said.
The CVS program begins with existing pre-apprenticeship classes at the Job Corps and high school. There, students sharpen basic literacy and numeracy skills, learn job fundamentals and visit nearby pharmacy operations. They also spend 120 unpaid hours in the stores in what CVS describes as an "externship," involving shadowing and mentoring.
After they graduate and enter the CVS apprenticeship program, they start at $12 an hour and can earn $16 to $17 as lead technicians while they complete 2,000 hours of training and experience. Most of these jobs are part time. From there, they can move into store management or higher-paid pharmacy tech jobs within CVS.
They can also sit for the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board examination. So far, neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey requires it, but it is required elsewhere, Reis said.
Tanya Saint-Vill, an 11th grader at Kensington, would rather play basketball or make films, but "my mom told me I need a backup plan," she said. At first, she didn't appreciate the role of pharmacy tech, but now sees it as a possible career.
Apprenticeship programs limit how long companies can pay at a trainee rate before moving employees into full pay.
"It can be easy to exploit apprenticeships," said Erin Johansson, author of "Advancing Equity Through Workforce Intermediary Partnerships," conducted by the Jobs With Justice Education Fund with the AFL-CIO.
Johansson said apprenticeships can move workers out of poverty, but unions and allies should be at the table to develop programs and make sure workers' voices are heard.