As one of the state’s last true glass factories, Blenko Glass Production Manager David Wertz was concerned about the century-old Milton institution surviving within a declining national industry.
Partnering with the U.S Department of Labor Apprenticeship Program and the West Virginia Department of Economic Development, the state’s first registered Glass Worker Apprenticeship began in earnest on Wednesday. Blenko Glass now has a thriving apprenticeship commitment, with young people learning a historic trade.
“We wouldn’t have a future without it, we would simply be snuffed out of the industry,” Wertz said. “It means that we have more options and more availability to help our junior class workers learn and get more opportunities by bringing in outside training. It means that we’re going to be able to last another 100 years.”
Wertz said the world-class, on-the-job, paid teaching program offers future growth unheard of in the glass blowing business.
“It’ll be a different ballgame here. We’ll be able to staff more shops to train more people,” Wertz said. “We’re not only making better benefits for our current folks, but we’re creating more careers and more jobs down the road as well.”
Taylor Brumfield, a Glenville State University Fine Arts Graduate, said this apprenticeship helps create a brighter future for her — and her state.
“If you lose this art form, then who else is going to continue it to keep it within our Appalachian culture?” Brumfield said. “I’d prefer to work my way up to being a glass piece finisher. I think I’m a quarter of the way to that. But it’s going to take at least five years, that’s a short time.”
Wertz said he has about 20 people apprenticing and working in the “hot shop,” and most of them are under 30.
“We start work at 6 a.m. and it is hot, hard, brutal work. It’s not easy to get a young person in this day and age to show up at 6 a.m. and bust their butts in the heat of the summer and the chill of the winter,” Wertz said. “It takes passion to be a great glass worker. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing. You can see that here every single day, every minute of the day when we’re in production. People are just pouring their passion out here at Blenko.”
Dave Lavender, with the West Virginia Department of Economic Development, Workforce Training and Apprenticeships, said the state proudly ranks fifth in the nation per capita in offering apprenticeship opportunities.
“We put them in with everything from wind turbine techs to meat cutters to home health aides, brewers, IT, aerospace,” Lavender said. “We’re the second state to do a Grow Your Own teacher apprenticeship, which is now really catching fire around the nation. West Virginia is setting a national trend when it comes to apprenticeships.”