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Front Line: A New Focus on Apprenticeship Programs

Apprenticeships have entered the spotlight as a promising solution to the shortage of skilled workers, especially for manufacturers.

Q3 2017
Engineer teaching apprentices to use computerized lathe.
Engineer teaching apprentices to use computerized lathe.
When President Donald Trump, former host of the reality show The Apprentice, signed an executive order in June designed to boost apprenticeship programs nationwide, he followed in his predecessor’s footsteps in embracing a workforce development tool that until recently has received relatively scant attention and resources in the United States.

In fact, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the National Apprenticeship Act, the governing statute of apprenticeship training in the U.S. However, according to Eric Seleznow, former assistant deputy secretary in the Department of Labor and now a senior adviser with the nonprofit Jobs for the Future, the apprenticeship option has gone largely untapped in the United States, especially in comparison to programs in Europe that have thrived for centuries. “For the past 80 years in this country, labor unions and the building trades have figured out how to develop high quality apprenticeship programs to create really good jobs with really good wages,” Seleznow says. “But everybody else has sort of ignored apprenticeships.”

Trump’s order came three years after President Barack Obama fashioned a new emphasis on developing federal apprenticeship programs, complete with a $90 million funding commitment. The Obama administration effort helped boost registered apprenticeships from approximately 375,000 to 550,000, Seleznow says. “We’ve been growing not only the numbers of apprenticeships in this country but also diversifying the occupations and industries,” Seleznow notes. “You’re seeing more of them now in healthcare, IT, cybersecurity, manufacturing, the insurance industry, and others.”

Fulfilling Manufacturing’s Need
Trump’s stated goal, which is backed by his push to more than double federal funding to $200 million, is to reach five million registered apprenticeships. The Executive Order, which aims to reduce the federal government’s regulatory role in developing and managing registered apprenticeship programs, cited the need to help fill, among other positions, “the 350,000 manufacturing jobs currently available.”

For the past 80 years in this country, labor unions and the building trades have figured out how to develop high quality apprenticeship programs to create really good jobs with really good wages. But everybody else has sort of ignored apprenticeships. Eric Seleznow, senior adviser, Jobs for the Future Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, says the U.S. manufacturing industry has about 30,000 registered apprenticeships, but also untold unregistered programs implemented by organizations that declined to go through the government’s registration process. Lee says the Executive Order’s advocacy for third-party credentialing for registered apprenticeship programs — instead of requiring programs to be credentialed through the federal government — could, if enacted, spur improved creativity and interest in apprenticeships and accelerate growth, even to the ambitious levels Trump has cited.

“Allowing for custom solutions for the programs to fit regional and local needs could create an environment where five million registered apprenticeships is not an impossible goal to attain,” Lee explains.

Seleznow and Lee say they hear from employers who lament the difficulty of identifying and hiring sufficiently skilled workers for their operations. Each agrees that apprenticeships can play a major role in addressing that shortage. In addition to increased government support, Lee says, companies will need to strengthen their resolve to implement apprenticeships and seek out regional partners, such as community colleges, technical schools and other companies.

“Apprenticeships are highly valuable and allow companies to play a role in the education of the next generation of workers, while customizing the training and skills for workers specific to the needs of their companies,” Lee says. “It’s a win-win for companies and workers.”

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