Apprentices in the new WordLab program get real-world training while helping clients who otherwise couldn’t afford public relations services. The program has already hired seven apprentices, including Scott Michael, left, and Brian Lee. Contributed

PORTLAND — With an aging workforce and a perception that there’s little in the way of professional opportunity, Maine is facing a labor shortage.

To help address both issues, Linda Varrell at Broadreach Public Relations created a first-of-its-kind apprenticeship program that pairs recent college graduates interested in a career in communications with small businesses and nonprofits that otherwise could not afford the services of a public relations agency.

Called WordLab, the program is designed to both attract young professionals and keep homegrown talent in Maine, Varrell said.

“With a median age of 44.6, Maine is currently the oldest state, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. This aging and slowly growing population has created a shrinking workforce, resulting in a lack of jobs and economic opportunities for young professionals. WordLab is seeking to change that,” Varrell said in a press release.

Overall, she said, “We want to show that Maine is a great place to live and work.”

WordLab has hired native Mainers, as well as out-of-state apprentices, according to Varrell, who said the program not only provides “active, on-the-job training and classroom instruction” but “quality service for clients.”

To be eligible for the 12-month program, participants need at least an associate’s degree or equivalent work experience. Varrell and Wayne Clark, who is WordLab’s program director, are now working with seven apprentices.

WordLab is already starting to see some success, including securing a feature story on a local news network and written pieces in print publications for various clients.

The hope is for the next group of apprentices to start at the end of the year or in early in 2020, Varrell said, depending on demand from businesses that could benefit from the public relations boost.

The front page of the WordLab website shows how the program works and the services it offers. Contributed

WordLab is certified by the Maine Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship Program and has received funding help from the city of Portland. The WordLab office is located at 19 Commercial St. Anyone interested in becoming a client, an apprentice or an investor should go online to wordlabpr.com. for more information.

Varrell, who founded Broadreach in 2006, said she started WordLab earlier this year because she wanted to create a “real solution” to Maine’s workforce issues while also “filling a valuable need in an underserved market.”

“Many small businesses and nonprofits have stories that need to be told, but they cannot afford to hire communications staff or retain a full-service agency,” she said. “WordLab provides services they can afford due to its business model and rate structure. Our services include marketing communications, media relations and event promotion, to name a few.”

Varrell said the first group of apprentices helped to get WordLab up and running, while the second group will serve “as proof of concept as we move forward.”

Under the WordLab model, Varrell said the apprentices spend 2,000 hours working with actual clients to provide communications and outreach assistance. In addition, they attend 144 hours of technical instruction, including seminars and workshops conducted by public relations professionals. They’re also assigned reading in both theoretical and practical applications of communication theory.

At the end of the program each apprentice will receive a public relations specialist certificate from the Maine Apprenticeship Program, along with job placement help.

One early success, Varrell said, is the work WordLab did for The Cromwell Center for Disabilities Awareness, which was looking for help in promoting its annual dinner and auction held in mid-May. Apprentices for WordLab helped create a social media strategy plan, created targeted press releases and provided onsite support at the actual event, Varrell said.

The WordLab model seems to be working for the apprentices, too.

“The combination of professional development and on-the-job mentoring has given me (many years) worth of growth in the span of one,” apprentice Kyle Walton said.

And Lauren Whitney, another apprentice, said, “I was eager to find a job in Maine. Working at WordLab has been beneficial for my career by providing me with a space to hone the skills I acquired in college and apply them to real clients. Upon completion of the program next year, I hope to secure a full-time job (here) in Maine.”

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