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Are Apprenticeships the Answer?

July 10, 2017
Trump is pushing them, as did Obama. On paper, everyone seems to love them. What’s the payoff, and what are the barriers? And if they’re so great, why are many manufacturers still reluctant to embrace them?

“Mr. Apprentice” himself, President Donald Trump, in recent months has very publicly announced his approval for boosting apprenticeship programs. He’d like to ramp up the number of apprenticeships in the United States from 500,000 to 5 million—a process that, at the current rate apprenticeships are growing, would take over 100 years. And he’s promising money to back up his endorsement of the idea—with $200 million, to be exact, more than the $90 million the Obama administration allocated for the effort.

Trump specifically mentioned manufacturing apprenticeships in his executive order on apprenticeship expansion, issued in June. It’s an order that has potential, say workforce leaders in manufacturing, but lacks meaningful details.

“It’s a very ambitious goal,” says Montez King, interim executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) who spent 25 years as a machinist and then a workforce trainer for Magna International. “I like the virtual goal of course. Even if he got to a million apprenticeships, I would be like, ‘Wow, that’s great.’”

The big questions: Where will the extra funding come from, as the White House budget proposal slashes Department of Labor funds by 21%? And which regulations will be changed or eliminated, as Trump promised, to make apprenticeship programs more accessible and user-friendly for real-world employers? Representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor did not follow through on IndustryWeek’s requests for an interview, so we’re left to speculate.

In the meantime, here is some advice from apprenticeship experts in manufacturing, policy and higher education on what the government and industry’s priorities should be as they try to train more workers to fill an estimated 350,000 unfilled manufacturing positions.

Industry: Tell a story that means something to your audience

Montez King spent 10 years running Magna’s apprenticeship program in inner-city Baltimore. When he would talk to kids about growing up poor in the city, getting a work uniform that he could wear to school because he couldn’t afford new clothes, and making a good middle class salary as soon as he finished his apprenticeship---while his 40-year-old cousin is still paying off student loans—it really resonated with them.

“I was the face,” he says. “I grew up in the area—the same streets, we even knew some of the same people. That was the selling point—having the right message.”

GF Machining Solutions in Lincolnshire, Ill., is launching a “learn and earn” apprenticeship program this fall that will accept up to five participants in its inaugural year.The program is in partnership with Harper Community College and Chicago’s Industrial Consortium for Advanced Technical Training.Shown are Scott Fosdick, president, GFMS; Jon Carlson, marketing specialist; Corey Ocock, apprentice, and Darlene Regilio, director of Human Resources, GFMS.

King, whose organization (NIMS) received $1.4 million of the $90 million Apprenticeship USA funds during the Obama administration, feels that the best people to develop manufacturing apprenticeship programs are manufacturing leaders themselves—through associations or regional collaborations. An understanding of manufacturing isn’t required for the Apprenticeship Training Representatives (ATRs) from the Department of Labor who visit plants and make sure all the boxes are checked. A typical rep might have manufacturing, IT and healthcare apprenticeship programs to manage, “so you’re not specializing in a particular area,” says King. “The training reps from the government I’ve worked with, they don’t speak the same language that manufacturing is looking for. No one wants government to come in to their organizations and tell them how to run their training programs.”

King says that recent changes to government regulations to allow community colleges to administer apprenticeship programs—“and employers just provide on the job training, rather than owning the program”—are a big positive. “We’ve been pushing that” to employers, he says.

Government and industry: Address employers’ misconceptions and show them successful apprenticeships.

Tammy Simmons, vice president of machine components maker Machine Specialties in Greensboro, N.C., says that an apprenticeship program seemed impractical and out of reach for her company until she heard the testimony of Roger Collins, a Siemens technical training specialist, at an Apprentice 2000 information session. There, she learned that registered apprenticeships have looser age restrictions than regular labor laws and allow high-school-age students to work in plants. And that the requirements weren’t as rigid as she thought—you can tailor the experience to the needs of your company.

Collins also explained intanglibles that got her attention—boosting morale in the current workforce, bringing a youthful energy to the place, and building strong connections with the school system that pay off in future recruiting.

Simmons took those revelations and helped start Guilford Apprenticeship Partners, a collaboration between manufacturing employers, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, and Guilford Technical Community College. This year, Guilford has 38 apprentices at four area companies, including Machine Specialties.

Simmons attributes the Guilford program’s success in part to teamwork between trainers at the job site and key people at the community college.

For instance, if the apprentices are taking a statistics class “and half of the class is kind of struggling, we can step in and get a tutor for those students.” At work, “the trainer’s like the big brother, father figure. It’s support that they probably wouldn’t get in a typical college situation.”

After they earn their associates’ degree, apprentices can go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. And the on-the-job experience helps enrich their studies. “We think the engineers born out of these apprenticeships, when they are taking their engineering courses in four-year programs, are asking questions typical engineering students don’t know how to ask,” says Simmons. “We think they’re going to be our best engineers.”

Government: Understand where manufacturers are coming from

“The structure of the industry has changed,” says James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan, which conducts numerous apprenticeships for the auto industry. “Lean manufacturing, supply chain management …all of these things give companies a great deal of insecurity in general [especially if they’re the supplier]. So you can’t predict the future well.

“Second, the Great Recession almost put them all out of business, so they’re very reluctant to get into positions where they have to continuously lay off people. At the same time, they also know that there are potential technologies and skills that they really haven’t mastered. So they’re in this difficult situation.”

Government: Make incentives for apprenticeships simple and consistent.

NIMS’ King thinks that apprenticeship incentives for employers are currently too convoluted. “You can possibly get money from here, you can possibly get money from over there,” he says. “Someone has to have a full-time employee just to figure out all the places to get money from. I think it needs to be a much more simplified and consistent method for funding for the employer. If you do an apprenticeship program, for example, something as simple across the board as a $2,000 tax discount every year for every apprentice.”

Industry: Change the debate from “How do I find the right person for my company?” to “How do we work together to train people for the skills we need?”

“If each company tries to solve it its own way, then we have huge problems,” says Jacobs. “And that, I think, from the education side, is what we see. We don’t see a commonality in many of the companies in what they want from us. In other words, part of the skills gap is really a communication gap and an understanding of each others’ situation.

“Companies are deceiving themselves if they believe that we can produce on the education side someone who can hit the ground running and be totally productive right away,” he added. “There’s a certain amount of work-based learning that has to go on within the company. And to be able to accept that, and not try to say, ‘Well, we want someone who has 12 years of experience.’ The companies always want somebody who’s experienced. We can’t often provide it. They have to be willing to take on people, and we can help them with their pedagogy and help them develop programs. Especially since many companies have their own internal structures that are different from one another—the way they use the machinery is different,

Industry: Evaluate the pay scale for these skilled jobs. Do you need to raise wages to recruit better apprentices?

This issue came up at the Center for Automotive Research’s T3 Manufacturing Summit in April, which focused on the skills gap in the U.S. automotive supply chain. Susan Helper, the chief economist for the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Obama administration and now a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, told the crowd of manufacturing executives that in the tool and die industry, raising wages, “is I think a dirty word here, but it’s actually something that needs to be very seriously considered.

The median wage for a tool and die maker is $51,000. “I think a lot of us, maybe being our age, we don’t necessarily think of inflation and what it’s done,” Helper said. “We think of a $40, 50K wage as a good wage. Well, that’s the median income in the U.S. today, and in tooling we’re not looking for the median person.”

Add in the cyclicality of the automotive industry and the potential for layoffs, and “parents are not crazy to be leery about sending their kids into this industry. It’s not just a marketing image problem. It’s also a reality problem.”

Jacobs noted that Macomb tool and die apprentices make a starting wage of $12 to $16.50 an hour. By comparison, robotics technician apprentices at Macomb make a starting salary of $17 to $22 an hour yet require much less training and skill—only 10 weeks of training, compared to more than two years for their tool and die counterparts. “The question we have around this is, how are the wages determined by you guys?” Jacobs asked the tool and die shop owners at the conference. “It appears not to be the effort the students are putting in.”

Companies are also committing less to educating their existing workers, he said. Macomb surveyed 60 client companies and found that 25% eliminated education and training during the Great Recession, “and they’re not putting those programs back on the books.” Enrollment at the college has increased for students under age 22, while it’s decreased for students 24 and above, most of whom are working. “Why aren’t more individuals coming to school from the companies currently employing them?” he wondered.

Industry and Government: Look to seriously underrepresented groups in manufacturing

That means women, minorities, ex-offenders, veterans and immigrants. Jacobs told the T3 crowd that “many veterans returning from service are finding it very difficult to get hired. For some reason, the hiring practices of companies don’t seem to take veterans into account.” And CAR’s labor expert, Kristen Dziczek, urged employers to “start thinking more broadly about who you’re recruiting from.”

Whether that idea will gain more traction is definitely an open question. Although Trump has specifically mentioned the need for more women in apprenticeships, his proposed budget includes $1 million in cuts to grants specifically for apprenticeship programs targeting women.

Government: Ease up on the time requirements (measure the outcomes)

Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of Opportunity America, a Washington think tank focusing on economic mobility, likens registered apprenticeships, which typically require 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and 144 hours of classroom instruction to “the marathon of job training … but we need those 10K, 5K and 1K races, too.” Jacoby suggests that in its requirements, the government measure outcomes rather than requiring “four hours a week of welding, four hours a week of something else.” In other words, set workers on a clear path to earning meaningful industry credentials “like NIMS certification” rather than require a specific time commitment.

And streamline the application process, she says. When her organization brought together a group of employers who were considering starting apprenticeships but hadn’t--they had been on a trip to Germany to observe apprenticeships, talked to their state office, and decided it was going to be too complicated—“every single one of them said the registration process was the biggest hurdle.”

Jacoby is heartened by the Trump administration’s interest in apprenticeships, though. “I think they have some commitment to this. I’m encouraged that they have at least done something. I do hope it goes further.” 

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