Home > Blog > Apprenticeship Programs Need to Incorporate Thinking Skills

Apprenticeship Programs Need to Incorporate Thinking Skills

Posted by admin on May 26, 2015

It’s a well-known fact that the U.S. is facing a serious shortfall in the number of manufacturing workers required to meet demand in the coming years.  There are many causes for this and the numbers are pretty daunting: 2 million to 3.5 million, depending whose figures you want to use.  Part of the discrepancy is the projection of how much U.S. manufacturing will grow, but the higher end seems realistic given the growth in the segment in the past few years.

While there are many recommendations to bridge this gap, we are partial to the apprenticeship approach.  A recent article in IndustryWeek  discusses the benefits of this approach and shows how three companies have implemented successful apprenticeship programs.  It also outlines steps manufacturers can take to implement such a program.

One of the things we particularly like about apprenticeship programs is the hands-on experience apprentices get working with experienced employees.  Effective programs pair the apprentice with a veteran of the company who not only has the technical skills to run the machinery, but understands the subtleties of the machinery and when something isn’t quiet right.  The experienced employees also understands “how things really work” in the plant and can advise the apprentice in the social aspects of the plant that are critical to being an effective team member.   This total immersion in the life of the plant is much preferred over programs that try to teach a lot of technical skills in a classroom setting and then install the new employee in a plant setting upon graduation from a technical program.  

Despite all the benefits of apprenticeship programs, there are some areas where we think formal training can be helpful.  One of these is in the thinking skills to avoid and solve problems.  While the more veteran employee may be able to avoid and solve problems “instinctively”, he or she has built these skills over many years of trial and error rather than in deploying a process for approaching these situations.  When asked to explain how they avoid and solve problems they probably are not able to articulate it in a way that is transferable to the apprentice.  They can tell the employee how to fix problems they have encountered before, but probably not a problem they have never faced.

In implementing training in these skills in manufacturing settings, we usually find that those viewed as the most proficient problem solvers in the plant are also the most resistant to the skills training.  “I already know how to do this,” is the response we often get from these employees as the start of the program.  But when they see the systematic approach we take and that they can teach other people how to use the same approach, they become very excited.   This often happens in the on-job application of the processes where they apply what they are learning to a lingering problem in the plant that no one has been able to solve.

With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 retiring every day (a trend that will continue until 2030), it is critical that we pass on their knowledge to a new group of employees if the U.S. is to remain a dominant force in manufacturing.  It is also important that we equip these new employees with all the skills they will need to manage situations, some very familiar and some their predecessors never experienced.