Why the U.S. Desperately Needs More Vocational Training & Apprenticeships

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Last Thursday, during “Workforce Development Week“, President Trump signed an executive order to significantly increase the number of U.S. apprenticeships from the current 500,000 by doubling the amount the government spends on apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeship programs are most successful when they’re designed by employers around their own needs. For that reason, employers will play a strong role in the composition of the plan through a task force that Trump announced on Thursday.

The plan aims to reduce red tape and overly rigid requirements for administering apprenticeship programs. It also establishes broad-based industry standards for apprenticeships. Trump is hopeful that employers will respond positively to these changes, and it will encourage them to embrace apprenticeships.

“Americans want to work. American companies want to hire,” said Labor Secretary Alex Acosta at a White House briefing. “The issue is a mismatch between available jobs and prospective employee jobs skills.”

An increased emphasis on apprenticeship programs would help alleviate the growing skills gap in the manufacturing sector. According to the Manufacturing Institute, 3.4 million manufacturing jobs are expected to become available over the next 10 years, yet 2 million of those jobs may be unfilled if America stays on its current course.

The manufacturing talent gap is growing.

Manufacturing is the largest industry in the U.S. It provides about one in six jobs, including electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, steamfitters, electrical power-line installers and repair workers, sheet metal workers, structural iron and steel workers and much more.

“The issue that has concerned many for decades has finally reached a boiling point,” a report by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute said. “The United States must find and develop people to address the talent shortage, or risk facing another wave of offshoring to places where talent is in greatest supply.”

The researchers polled a nationally representative sample of companies about talent in the U.S. manufacturing industry. 84 percent of manufacturing executives agreed there is a talent shortage.

Although the unemployment rate is less than five percent today, there are still 9.3 million Americans unemployed, and 4.8 million vacant jobs because businesses are struggling to find workers with the skills to operate new machines and manage new processes.

One reason for this imbalance in the supply and demand of manufacturing talent is that too many job seekers, including college graduates, are graduating from school without marketable skills or any practical work experience. The automation of traditional “knowledge jobs” will only exaggerate this gap.

Participants in an apprenticeship program are earning and learning both on and off the job. This differs from many other employment-related programs and purely classroom-based education.

Skill requirements are increasing.

Many jobs in manufacturing actually require considerable skills, and as technology advances, their skill requirements are increasing. Auto mechanics, for example, have a far more technically demanding job than that of 20 years ago.

What the U.S. is experiencing is “demographically driven,” said Daniel Marschall, the executive director of the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute.

Skilled baby boomers are retiring and millennials are not getting the skills they need to advance into these jobs, he said. “We hope we can turn things around, fund apprenticeship programs, upgrade existing worker skills, move them up and pay more,” Marschall said. There are many well-paying jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree.

The average manufacturing employee in 2013 earned more than $77,000, including benefits, while machinists and welders with at least a high school diploma can earn above the national median wage of $34,750.

Manufacturing is well known for paying a family-sustaining wage even for workers with less than a college degree, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). Catherine Imperatore, ACTE’s research manager, says “ACTE members teach technical, academic and employability skills through classroom and lab-based learning, plus students often have the opportunity to learn their skills in the field through work-based learning (including internships and apprenticeships).”

One of the best ways to meet this potential shortage is through apprenticeship programs: paid training programs that combine on-the-job training and classroom instructions.

Why aren’t apprenticeships more popular?

In Washington state, aerospace and advanced manufacturing companies participate in a state and federally funded apprenticeship program to train employees for a variety of occupations.

In Illinois, a consortium backed by a federal grant and administered the Illinois Manufacturers Association Education Foundation has plans to create 600 apprenticeships, providing educational opportunities via an employer-sponsored program focused on manufacturing jobs and information technology.

In 2015, more than 52,500 participants graduated from apprenticeships, and more than 197,500 individuals nationwide entered the apprenticeship system, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

However, the number of apprenticeships could be a lot higher. Less than five percent of young people in the U.S. train as apprentices, but in Germany, for example, the number is closer to 60 percent. After finishing mandatory schooling at about age 18, German students can apply to a company for a two or three-year training contract. If accepted, the apprentices generally split their time on the job learning a trade and taking classes at a publicly funded vocational school.

Unfortunately, apprenticeship programs fell out of favor in the last 20 years because educators and parents began placing more emphasis on academic preparation and the traditional four-year degree for most students. College graduates could earn so much more during a lifetime than high school grads, and the once practical “tracking” system was phased out of school curriculums.

Further, “corporations became oriented to outsourcing their work to other countries and that’s why they cut back apprenticeships,” said Marschall of the AFL-CIO.

But because of the growing shortages of skilled workers in the United States as well as a move to bring outsourced jobs back home, apprenticeships are making a much-needed comeback.

Apprenticeships are a better deal for employees because “[they] promote employment security and the ability of individuals to move up their career path,” Marschall said.


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