By Michael I. Callanan, Executive Director, National Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee for the Electrical Industry (NJATC)
It’s been more than 25 years since I completed my electrical apprenticeship program in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). As an apprentice, I learned my craft by splitting time between on-the-job training assignments and classroom-related instruction. I learned my “hands-on” skills on the job and the theoretical parts of my trade in the classroom. For the better part of the years since, the apprenticeship model has remained virtually unchanged. While it has clearly served us well, three recent developments have highlighted the need to reinvent and reinvigorate that traditional model.
First, and perhaps foremost, the way apprentices are used on the job today is vastly different than when I was an apprentice. In my day, it was not uncommon for apprentices to stand at the bottom of the ladder watching a Journey-level worker—waiting their turn to demonstrate what they had been shown. Now, the competitive nature of construction and maintenance operations rarely affords the opportunity for apprentices to watch and learn in the same manner that I did. Today, they must be a productive part of the workforce and contribute to the overall efficiency of their respective projects. This has resulted in a dramatic shift from the jobsite to the classroom in the teaching of hands-on skills.
Second, changes that have occurred on the jobsite have been accompanied by significant changes in the classroom. Undoubtedly, the classroom I sat in so many years ago is now little more than a relic. Technology has changed the game. Today’s classrooms incorporate digital media, distance-learning models and simulations, as well as a host of other technologically advanced training aids that equip instructors with a full palette of educational tools to help them meet their objectives. For example, instead of merely looking at a three-phase synchronous motor sitting on a table in a classroom, students these days have the opportunity to view 3-D drawings of the motor and use animations and simulations to virtually replicate the operation of the unit.
Third, in case you haven’t noticed, today’s apprentices aren’t the same as in the past. They are, for the most part, older, better educated and, most important, more technology-savvy than their predecessors. Apprentices today also learn differently. Thus, we need to meet them where they are as learners. This means we must equip them with technology-based learning tools that mesh with their learning styles.
Later this year, my organization will transition our national apprenticeship model—the same one I completed over two decades ago—to a blended learning model. Approximately 30,000 apprentices will complete their homework assignments online in a learning-management system that permits our instructors to monitor their progress in real time. When our apprentices come to class, their instructors will have prepared a customized lesson for them based on the results of their homework. After reviewing learning objectives that were problematic, the apprentices will move to the shop area and practice the hands-on skills that are critical to their development as new electrical workers.
Although our traditional apprenticeship model has served us well, the demands of our customers and our industry have precipitated the need for a change. Fortunately, we have the technology and a new breed of apprentices that will help to ensure our model remains sustainable for the next generation of workers.MT&AP