Fuel for our economic engine

November 03, 2015

Many of the reasons companies outsource jobs and contracts for manufactured products are caused by the shortage of technically trained and skilled workers in America's workforce. Today, students, parents, educators and the government are primarily focused on gaining as much education as possible before heading to an occupation for a life-long career.

The college-for-all scheme dominates all levels of our secondary and post-secondary system. Despite dismal results from this "train-then-place" model, apprenticeship is providing the broad base of technological experiences and education needed for developing the right workforce for many businesses. The American Apprenticeship Round Table is an organization that assists companies in building and sustaining value-added apprenticeship programs; And, in recognition of National Apprenticeship Week (Nov. 2-8), it applauds the efforts of the U.S. Department of Labor for its ApprenticeshipUSA campaign.

With tightening markets and global competition greater than ever, employers are concerned with recruiting, hiring and retaining the right individuals to meet 21st century challenges. According to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics performed by the National Skills Coalition, about half of the job openings between 2012 and 2022 are for middle-skill jobs. Currently, middle-skill jobs account for 54 percent of the nation's labor market, but only 44 percent of workers are trained to middle-skill levels. As a result, key industries are unable to find enough trained workers to fill these jobs. This skills gap keeps the economy from growing and makes it difficult for employers to hire for their needs. Worse, it keeps people from improving their job prospects and earning potential.

Today, many businesses are finding ways to partner with their local community college and offer apprenticeships which are helping close the skills gap. Unlike the "train-then-place" model, apprenticeship is a "place-then-train" process that calls to first place or imbed the learner in a real occupation. Once placed with an actual employer, the learner receives his or her formal education and specialized training that articulates the educational concepts and makes them more legitimate within the occupational community. These components work in concert and congruently to maximize development in a way that benefits all.

Newport News Shipbuilding, for example, offers apprenticeships in such occupational areas as cost estimating, modeling and simulation, design, planning and dimensional control. Apprentices typically spend three days per week working directly on the product line in various capacities. The other two days are spent in the college classroom earning an associate's degree in either business administration, engineering, engineering technology or technical studies. At the end of four years the employee/student has the needed work experience and the education to meet the middle-skill challenges of the 21st century.

The problem? This program and many other similar programs around the country come with a hefty cost to the business.

While the on-the-job training costs and production salaries can be absorbed within a company's normal training efforts and employee work load that all employees receive, particularly burdensome for those newer and smaller companies looking to get into the apprenticeship arena is the cost of the educational component — which includes tuition and often a wage for the apprentice while attending on-the-clock classes.

To resolve this concern, our country needs to redefine what it means to be a student. Not all students benefit from the traditional route of attending college full-time, almost entirely separated from the realities of a career. We need a climate that welcomes individual companies and industry clusters to partner with a variety of entities — especially that of the community college.

But, most of all, the U.S. government needs to hold up its end of the bargain. Our education and training policies should prioritize the expansion and replication of industry‐based partnerships which are the building blocks of existing successful apprenticeship programs.

It is for this reason that ApprenticeshipUSA, a national effort to double the number of registered apprenticeships during the next five years, comes at an opportune time. It offers our legislators yet another opportunity to hear from business leaders from a variety of industries and firms, including small, medium and corporate employers, potentially bringing a dose of reality back to the skills debate in Washington, D.C.