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Where Are Our Apprenticeships?


When I went to work for the rep in 1970, my apprenticeship consisted of reading product catalogs, any old books I could find, listening to old men tell stories, prowl any basement I could get into, and cringe as psychotic wholesalers from Brooklyn and the Bronx screamed at me over the phone because something got backordered. I got by, but just barely.

I wasn’t in any union and I mention that because most apprenticeships seem to come though the unions. The Wall Street Journal had an article about this recently and it caught my eye because it began on such a positive note. The writer quoted Robert Lerman, an economics professor at American University, who said, “Apprenticeships can offer a precise match between the skills employers want and the training workers receive.” And isn’t that the spirit of the whole thing? Let’s teach people the skills they need to meet the needs of the market while following a path toward a great career.

They also mentioned, John Ladd, director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship (did you know there was such an office?), who said, "It's a great model for transferring skills from one generation to the next." I like that even more because I learned a lot from old people. Part of the apprentice’s job is to shut up and listen, right?

But then the Journal article went on to say that formal programs, those that combine on-the-job learning with mentorships and classroom education, fell 40% in the U.S. between 2003 and 2013. And doesn’t that make you wonder? How could something that makes so much sense, and is so steeped in history, suddenly decline by nearly half?

Mr. Lerman speculates in the article that the reason could be because two-thirds of the apprenticeships in the U.S. are in the construction industry, and that fortifies the blue-collar aspects of being an apprentice, which turns off lots of young people. Perhaps they’d rather be texting, tweeting and posting to Facebook rather than building stuff. Or maybe it’s because, for years, the only way into a union apprenticeship program was to have a relative already in the union who would put in a good word for you.

And then, the author of the article goes on to note there are U.S. companies that could be creating more apprenticeships if apprenticeships weren’t so closely associated with unions. Hey, no need to be organizing the kids, right? They’re liable to grow up and demand more. Whoa.

The article mentions that President Obama set aside $100 million for apprenticeships, but these apprenticeships had to be in high-growth industries such as health care, information technology and supply-chain management. There’s nothing about the work we do in there, and that makes me think about how many too-cold, too-hot, unwashed, and probably very ill, Americans there may be work in a few decades if dopey people instead of well-taught people are doing this.

From the article: ”Apprenticeships now exist for computer professionals and for certified nursing assistants in South Carolina, where the number of businesses offering apprenticeships has grown to 647 from 90 in 2007. Some 4,700 people who trained in South Carolina's apprentice program are now fully employed.”

I figure all those office buildings with the computer-trained people and all those nursing homes filled with saggy Southerners are going to need HVAC in the days to come, right? But who will be doing that work if we don’t have enough apprentices learning the right way now?

Wisconsin currently has 8,000 apprenticeship programs and they want to add even more but these will be for truck drivers and the high-level manufacturing industry. That’s great but I’m thinking about how cold it gets in Wisconsin. Who’s going to work on all those heating systems?
I ran all of these thoughts by Carsten Nørgaard, who lives in Ebeltoft, Denmark and is very sharp. I asked him because he doesn’t live in the U.S. Listen to what he has to stay. Oh, and this may sting a bit:

“I believe you Americans in this area can learn a lot form countries like Germany and my country, Denmark, where apprenticeships have been used for many years. It is the way to become a plumber, carpenter, bricklayer or electrician. It takes typically 4 to 4½ years to become a professional craftsman in Denmark; I am not sure about Germany.

“Not to upset any Americans, but from my experience (I lived 4½ years in the USA) many craftsmen have limited skills. They can put things together but many do not know basic things about insulation and construction. I have seen many houses being built and I have often wondered how people can accept the quality handed to them. It seems to me that the up-front appearance is more important than the detailed quality to most buyers. Maybe I am wrong as I have mostly seen single-family home construction and not large construction, so I will say sorry right away.

“I myself have an education. It is not a ‘training’ as you often hear of in the U.S. As an electrician, I studied for 4½ years, where some sections were in a classroom and laboratory education at an academy, and other sections were with fieldwork at a company where a person would typically work closely with an experienced craftsman. After the 4½ years, a person can build an engineering- or architectural education on top of that.

“Today, you can become an engineer without being a professional craftsman first. In my younger days, it was normal for a person to become a craftsman and then add another education on top. Many companies like people with both educations, as it gives the person a broader view and a better understanding of a problem.

“After the 4½ years, when you have finished your apprenticeship period, you will have to pass an examination that includes both an academic test in writing and a practical test, where you most make an installation within your trade. You will be questioned verbally in this test. So both the answers, as well as the quality of your work, counts in this second test. After passing these two tests, you can call yourself a plumber or an electrician or whatever you have chosen of trade.

“In Denmark, we have over the last few years had problems with the perception of the craftsman education. Young people have seen the apprenticeship as dated and not as ‘fine’ as moving from high school to college. The government is now putting effort into changing this perception, together with the technical academies, and it is slowly moving towards being okay once again to become a well-educated craftsman.

“It is strange; no one can live without a plumber or electrician, though a banker or someone who researches antiquities seems to be more ‘valuable.’

And isn’t that the truth? Maybe the key to attracting more young people to plumbing, heating and cooling apprenticeships, and more businesses to support these apprenticeships, lies in semantics. As Carsten writes, “I myself have an education. It is not a ‘training’ as you often hear of in the U.S.”

Great point well made. Training is for dogs, dancing bears, and little kids who crap in their pants. Is that the way we think of the apprentices?

Maybe that’s the real problem.


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