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Apprenticeships: Old Solution to a New Problem

Posted by admin on August 23, 2014

As manufacturing activity continues to grow in the U.S. and Baby Boomers retire in increasing numbers, manufacturers find themselves in a position few would have imagined 10 years ago: They can’t find enough qualified employees to fulfill the demand for their products.  To help fill this gap, manufacturers are turning to apprenticeships, an age-old concept that was all but abandoned over the past 25 years when manufacturing companies were doing more firing than hiring.

The basic concept of an apprenticeship program is that a worker with little or no skills (the apprentice) to perform the job is paired with a person who is expert at the job who can train the apprentices to perform the job and hone their skills.  Many programs include an on-the-job learning component, as well as classroom learning to acquire the basic skills needed to perform well.

There are many benefits of apprenticeship programs for manufacturers, including:

Getting trained employees – While it may take awhile before an apprentice is able to perform at a high enough level to contribute regularly, the company will eventually have an employee that is adding value.  A plus is that the company will also have an employee trained in how it does business, rather than retraining someone who may have learned another company’s processes and systems.

Government funding – To help offset some of the costs to the employer in lost productivity from the expert and apprentice, the federal and many state governments offer grants to employers that undertake a formal program. The federal government will be providing $100 million in funding for apprenticeship programs starting this fall under the American Apprenticeship Grant.

Acknowledge experts – Apprenticeship programs give a nod to the experience of the experts who will be working with apprentices.  These employees are being recognized for their outstanding skills and ability to teach others.

A long-term employee – The employer gains the opportunity to train and retain an employee who can contribute to the long-term success of the company.  We could not find statistics on retention rates, but believe that apprentices will have a loyalty to the company that gave them an opportunity to learn a skill and earn a living.

While there are many benefits to apprenticeship programs, there are potential pitfalls that need to be considered and avoided for a successful program.  These include:

The training skills of the experts - The experts will be selected because of their job skills and experience.  But they must be willing and able to teach apprentices how to learn and use those skills.  This requires training in systematic teaching and assessment to give the experts the skills they need to be effective.

Company must be willing to change – Apprenticeship programs require the company to change the way it operates.  Like any change effort, the company must realistically assess and plan for this change.  It must also be willing to take a short-term productivity decline for a longer-term gain.

Apprentices may not stay – Despite the company’s best efforts, some apprentices will fail out and others will leave for other opportunities.  The company needs to stay committed to these setbacks so they can realize the full benefits of the apprenticeship program.  It must also assess whey apprentices are leaving an make the necessary changes to correct any problems.

Not just technical skills – While much of the emphasis of apprenticeships is on technical skills, companies are remiss if they think that is all that is involved in developing high-performing employees.  Companies should consider the communication (written and verbal), problem-solving and team skills that will make an apprentice successful in the company long term.

We have worked with clients to identify the problem-solving skills all employees need to perform their jobs and contribute to problem solving teams, and then train them or work with internal resources to train them to that level of proficiency.  Apprentices should be part of this process if they are going to be permanent employees who will contribute to the company’s success.

We also have vast experience in training trainers, such as the experts who will be teamed with apprentices.  Learning how to teach and train are very specific skills that these technical experts need in order to transfer their skills to apprenticeships.  We have seen many efforts fail because the technical expert did not have the skills to effectively transfer skills and provide feedback to apprentices.