Will Apprenticeships Ever Be Hip?

apprenticeIn the late 1990s, I wrote a column for a local newspaper in Wilmington, Delaware, about how local unions were desperately looking for young adults to sign up for apprenticeship programs. That piece prompted an angry phone call from a mom whose son was unable to find work and spent most of the day sleeping on her couch.

Figuring I could do a good thing for both her son and a local union, I connected the young man with a plumbers and pipefitters local official I quoted in my column, and, to my joy, the young man promptly became an apprentice. Everyone seemed happy, and I was ready to pat myself on the back … until everything went wrong.

The young man, it turns out, regularly went to work late and didn’t seem enthusiastic about the job, according to the union official who I called to find out how he was doing. I called the apprentice to find out what was up, and he complained about the hard work, fetching coffee, and relatively low pay — pay that would quickly increase over just a few months, mind you, once he got enough experience.

The apprentice finally informed me he was going to return his apprentice’s shirt and look for other work.

Whether he was lazy or not isn’t really the issue here. The idea of an apprenticeship program, I realized, was just not glamorous enough for this kid back then, and they seem to have a worse rep — if any rep at all — among Gen Y today. They don’t have the cache in the United States that they have in other countries, and many employers in the country don’t see a need to invest their money or their employees’ time in them. Therein lies a huge problem when it comes to the growing skills gap.

Such training programs were at the heart of a roundtable discussion put together by The Atlantic that I attended last Tuesday in Washington, DC. The attendees included some of the top thought leaders in the workplace and training field, in addition to representatives from major international corporations and government officials from nations abroad who have been wondering how to duplicate their training program successes in the U.S. job market.

Today, apprentices make up only 0.3% of the total workforce, far below our European counterparts, said Sarah Rosen Wartell, president of the Urban Institute, during the meeting.

Indeed, data from the Department of Labor show a considerable decline in the number of active apprenticeships in the last decade.

apprenticeshipsThat doesn’t mean U.S. employees aren’t involved in some sort of training on the job. According to new data from Families and Work Institute, 25% of hourly employees say they have previously or are currently participating in some training programs provided or financially supported by their current employer. And 68% of employers say they have some measure of financial assistance for employees to continue their education or training.

But alas, more formalized training programs such as apprenticeships are few and far between. And that’s a bad thing, especially when it comes to youth employment.

Peter Witting, Germany’s Ambassador to the U.S. (who also was part of The Atlantic discussion) said his nation invests in apprenticeships — both on the government and business side — and he and others at the table agreed such formalized training programs don’t have the stigma they have in the United States. A college education or apprenticeship track are both well respected in Europe, several attendees pointed out.

Global companies are trying to do their part to bring respectability back to such programs on our shores. Officials from Nestlé (the sponsors of The Atlantic roundtable) were on hand to share their insights and concerns about the apprenticeship issue.

In July, the company announced it was launching Project Opportunity,

“a career acceleration initiative to help people of all ages gain work experience and strengthen their professional development skills in food and beverage manufacturing. As part of Nestlé’s broader global initiative to address the global unemployment crisis, the company has pledged to expand its apprenticeship program to 31 Nestlé factories in the United States, hire 1,000 paid interns and trainees by 2017, and reach 300,000 people with ‘readiness for work’ activities annually.”

Clearly, there is a growing desire on the part of employers in the United States to have a highly skilled workforce. But how will that come about?

What are you doing at your organization to train your employees and your future employees?
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