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Peoria Fire Chief Sollberger says department’s new apprenticeship program dovetails into recruitment efforts

230117 Peoria Fire Department.jpg
Joe Deacon
The Peoria Fire Department is launching a new apprenticeship program aimed at growing interest in firefighting careers among teenagers and young adults.

Striving to address lingering concerns about staffing, the Peoria Fire Department is launching a new apprenticeship program aimed at growing interest in firefighting careers among teenagers and young adults.

Fire Chief Shawn Sollberger says the apprenticeships are basically a revival of the department’s cadet program that was scrapped during budget cuts in 2019.

“Since that time, we've really challenged ourselves trying to get this program back in place,” said Sollberger. “The reason why we changed the name of it is, as professional firefighters you’re a skilled laborer and every skilled labor program has an apprenticeship program. So we twisted it up a little bit from a cadet program to an apprenticeship program.

“But the real reason behind this is that we're trying to get more people interested in being professional firefighters. So an apprenticeship program allows us to bring in a younger generation of a workforce, train them, educate them at a much slower pace so that they have a better understanding when they hit the streets.”

Sollberger said the department began accepting apprenticeship applications earlier this month and had received 13 submissions in the first four days, so interest appears strong. He said they will continue taking applications through the end of March and will select three candidates to begin their three-year apprenticeships on June 1.

230117 Sollberger.jpg
Joe Deacon
Peoria Fire Chief Shawn Sollberger says a new apprenticeship program is one of several initiatives the department is using in an effort to attract more young people to firefighting careers.

“We say, ‘up to three years,’ and the reason why we say that is it gives us flexibility,” said Sollberger. “We could have people come on board and they learn at a much faster pace. They pick up on things much quicker, and then they can be onboarded during that cycle.”

Sollberger said that while a $4 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) allowed them to hire 11 full-time firefighters last year, staffing still isn’t quite at 100%.

“What that did was it took us operationally from 160 to 171 (personnel) on the street,” said Sollberger. “So now we feel like operationally, we’re where we need to be. Is it ideal? No, because ideally, everything would be staffed and we'd have all the manpower to staff all these things that we had before. But we have to work within the budgets that we have, with the ultimate goal of continuing trying to challenge ourselves to expand if we can.”

Peoria residents between the ages of 17 and 20 with a high school diploma or a GED certificate are eligible for the apprenticeship program. Sollberger said the goal is to have the apprentices eventually join the department full-time.

“Does it mean that they have to be City of Peoria firefighters? No, but we'd be fooling ourselves if we didn't say that the ultimate goal was that,” he said. “We're hoping, as we have these three individuals within our walls, within our training academy, at our fire stations, working around our firefighters, that between the educational process and the learning process that they just look at, ‘I want to be here and this is the fire department that I want to work for.’”

Sollberger said the plan is to continue accepting more apprenticeships in the years to come, with the program providing some relief to budget constraints.

“If there’s no value in an apprenticeship program, then you shouldn't start (one) because it needs to be a legacy program,” said Sollberger. “That’s the only way that you reap any benefit from this. So from the city’s side, what we entertain is that we have the ability to be able to train people at a cheaper rate. So what we’re hoping is that this thing starts to grow and that City of Peoria residents between these ages have the ability to want to work here.”

Sollberger says the apprenticeship program is just one of a number of initiatives they’re pursuing to recruit more minority and female firefighters and attract a younger generation to the profession. He pointed specifically to their “explorers” program for school students, training courses at the Woodruff Career and Technical Center, and an upcoming partnership with District 150.

In March, we're going to have our first Peoria Public School interns,” said Sollberger. “So now we’re talking about kids that are juniors in high school being paid by the State of Illinois to come in work upwards to 20 hours within our walls. That's pretty exciting.

“So there's a lot of little things that we're working on, hopefully that we can quantify this going into this year and next year, where we're starting to see some positive results.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.