Last week I wrote about vocational training—how programs that were being decimated a decade ago are seeing a strong comeback with even stronger participation. Many are adding classes to accommodate waiting lists.
While music to manufacturers’ ears, this training alone likely will not be enough to make up for the huge deficit of skilled workers, at least not in a timely manner. Some companies are turning to something that once was the principal means by which craft workers learned their trades but now plays a relatively small part in the U.S.—apprenticeships.
As noted by University of Washington Professor Daniel Jacoby in his article “Apprenticeship in the United States”: “The essence of this institution has always involved an exchange of labor for training, yet apprenticeship has been far from constant over time as its survival in the United States has required nearly continual adaptation to new challenges.”
According to Jacoby, “four distinct challenges define the periods of major apprenticeship changes. The colonial period required the adaptation of Old World practices to New World contexts. In the era of the new republic, apprenticeship was challenged by the clash between traditional authority and the logic of expanding markets and contracts. The main concern after the Civil War was to find a training contract that could resolve the heightening tensions between organized labor and capital. Finally, in the modern era following World War I, industrialization's skill-leveling effects constituted a challenge to apprenticeship against which it largely failed. Apprenticeship lost ground as schooling was instead increasingly sought as the vehicle for upward social mobility that offset the leveling effects of industrialization.”
After embarking on a discussion of these periods and the evolution of apprenticeships, Jacoby questioned whether we are now in a new era of challenges that will reshape apprenticeship:
“Along with a declining influence of labor and civil rights organizations, work relations appear to have changed as we begin the new millennium. Forms of labor contracting that provide fewer benefits and security are on the rise. Incomes once again have become more stratified by education and skill levels, making them a much more important issue. Gary Becker's (1964) work on human capital theory has encouraged businessmen and educators to rethink the economics of training and apprenticeship. Conceptualizing training as an investment, theory suggests that enforceable long-term apprenticeships enable employers to increase their investments in the skills of their workers. Binding indentures are rationalized as efficient devices to prevent youths from absconding with the capital employers have invested in them. Armed with this understanding, increasingly policy makers have permitted and encouraged arrangements that look more like older-style employer dominated apprenticeships. Whether this is the beginning of new era for apprenticeship, or merely a return to the prior battles over the abuses of one-sided employer control, only time will tell.”
Whoa … there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things, and I can tell you that most people I know would look askance at these “older-style employer-dominated apprenticeships” that are “binding indentures.” Yes, employers take a risk when they train workers that these trainees will take their skills elsewhere, but the same can be said for any worker, not just trade apprentices.
I’m an editor who came to her job with the basic writing and editing skills that would allow me to cover almost any topic. Never in my training did I think I would be writing and editing articles about metal fabricating and manufacturing. That part—the industry-specific part—I learned on the job. I also learned a lot about managing website content, something I had no knowledge of before this job. In a sense, most of us are apprentices on some level at some time in our careers.
My personal theory is that apprenticeships that make the “human capital” feel valued as humans and not just as capital investments that owe everything to the company store are much more likely to create workers who stay with the company. Nothing is guaranteed, but to attract the best, you have to make the opportunity attractive. Binding indenture just doesn’t cut it.
A colleague recently told me about Schneider Electric’s apprenticeship program than puts university hires through two years of varied assignments in its plants to help them find the best fit. However, these are university hires, who already have a leg up. What about the nonuniversity-bound young person?
I spoke with someone on the phone earlier today who began an apprenticeship in a machine shop at the age of 14 a few decades ago. Doing so, he discovered his calling and decided to make manufacturing, by way of a stint in the Navy, a career, instead of continuing his formal education. He has a lot to say about the educational system in the U.S.—how we are failing a large percentage of the youth population who are not necessarily college material, but would make more than adequate tradesmen and –women. You’ll read his thoughts in articles on thefabricator.com in 2013.
In the meantime, here’s the article that inspired me to write about training opportunities, particularly apprenticeships. It focuses on Germany’s system, which, like everything else has its good points and not so good (according to some German acquaintances), but many positives about the country’s apprenticeships can be found in this article. I especially like this point: "And, while the training immediately creates a symbiosis between the young worker and his employer, it nevertheless prepares us well for the broader job market in case we cannot or do not want to stay with the company," said André Etzweiler, an apprentice at Ford in Cologne, Germany. Yes … that Ford.
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