Customized Apprenticeships

The reality of skill levels for today’s potential apprenticeship candidate is hitting home.

Apprenticeships in U.S. manufacturing used to be pervasive throughout industry with scalable programs instituted in companies large and small. Where did they go, and why did they go away? In general, my take is twofold: competition and cost.

When I was coming up in the manufacturing industry working for a large machine tool builder, its apprenticeship program was second to none. Comprehensive, it provided a continuous chain of leaders, managers and, in many cases, executives who would lead the company ongoing. An employee completing the entire 8,000-hour program earned the equivalent of a four-year degree.

Apprenticeships for many years acted, to borrow a baseball analogy, as the farm system for a company to cultivate future talent and place it where needed in the organization. The benefits were numerous, including candidates of various skill levels, which could appropriately populate a variety of needs within the organization with the skill sets honed for the position available.

A benefit of such an apprenticeship program was that as the needs of the company changed, the infrastructure for additional training was in place, in-house. Companies could exert control and influence over what was taught and try to match it with what was needed. But in our economic structure, the costs for this were borne by the company.

For many years, domestic manufacturing existed in a sort of steady state of competitive balance. That was until the rest of the world found our markets and began to successfully penetrate those markets. Competitive pressures lead to cost cutting, and apprenticeship programs were a relatively easy target.

I was told at the time that since the effects of cutting out in-house training wouldn’t be felt for years, the programs could be reconstituted. In effect, they were kicking the can down the road.

I seriously doubt that apprenticeship programs, to the degree of the one I experienced early in my career, can be recreated. That said, the idea of apprenticeship programs is being revisited at many companies. However, the reality of skill levels for today’s potential candidate are hitting home. Perhaps for reasons similar to why companies closed down apprenticeship programs, many schools have dropped industrial arts and other “shop” courses from their curriculum.

Moreover, apprenticeship programs are finding they must start at a much more basic level than previous generations because the remedial needs of applicants—basic reading, writing and math—are so low. I’m also told that another dirty little secret about some of today’s candidates is the use of drugs, but we’ll save that for another column.

One trend in apprenticeship programs—or better said, programs that are producing results like an apprenticeship—that I am seeing and hearing about involves collaboration between local shops and local or regional technical schools. Often, it takes a phone call and a meeting to discuss the mutual benefits of working together. Once a relationship is established, the shops consult with the schools about their needs, and in turn the schools have the knowledge to tailor their curriculum, so it can fulfill those needs. The collaboration works both ways, providing the area business with better equipped workers and the school with placement opportunities for its students.

Traditionally, many apprenticeship programs presented more general topics that are germane to manufacturing. The thinking is that a base grounding in manufacturing can be a starting point to develop the specific skills needed.

Taking that thinking a step forward can involve a co-op program. I am aware of shops that have arrangements with the local tech school, and in some cases high schools, which allow students studying specified topics to put that knowledge into context on the shop floor.

The student is assigned a mentor in the shop and can be deployed to areas of the shop in need of extra help. In many cases, the student is paid while working as a co-op. One shop owner told me this program is like a test drive for both parties. The shop can evaluate the student without the employment commitment, and the student can get a real-world experience of the environment they will encounter.

The traditional formula for executing apprenticeships has changed. The idea of spreading the risk and cost among entities can contribute specifically to the goal of ensuring a secure line of supply for future workers. How it gets done depends on various factors. The bottom line is it must get done.