By Michael I. Callanan, Executive Director, National Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee for the Electrical Industry (NJATC)
You had to listen carefully, but in the course of President Obama’s State of the Union Address he proclaimed, “So tonight, I’ve asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs to make sure they have one mission: Train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now. That means more on-the-job training and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.”
No matter your politics, most of us with responsibilities for training and workforce development would agree that we have failed to develop a comprehensive policy that enables us to meet the ever-changing needs of our industry and our customers! As I have written in the past, although the traditional apprenticeship model has served us well, today there are serious challenges that threaten its long-term stability and sustainability. The purpose of this article is to outline three important forces that threaten the apprenticeship model, and to advocate three immediate steps that can help ensure that the model remains an important part of U.S. workforce-development strategy.
First, there are significant economic forces that threaten the sustainability of the apprenticeship model. While the model’s goal to support an apprentice’s skill development serves the apprentice well, the employer must absorb the additional cost associated with the training. In today’s challenging business environment, employers are frequently unable to pass that cost on to their customers.
The economic forces, in turn, fuel the second major force impacting apprenticeship programs: competition. Global competitiveness in the construction and maintenance sectors have forced employers and owners to streamline their training and workforce-development programs. The result is fewer apprentices at a time when experienced workers are beginning to retire in droves.
The third major force is the challenge of demographics. All sectors are competing for an increasingly smaller pool of available entrants into their industries. The total number of applicants has declined to levels that are approaching 50% of what we have seen in the past. In some parts of the country, our programs are facing a potential pool of applicants that are either inadequate or insufficient for the industry’s needs.
There’s no simple fix to the problem. Dealing with all the challenges to the apprenticeship model will require action at a number of levels. To begin, we need to develop incentives for employers and program sponsors to create and offer apprenticeship opportunities for young men and women. Incentives can come in many forms, including tax credits and grants that reduce some of the financial burdens placed on employers and others who offer apprenticeship opportunities.
Next, we need to continue to redefine and develop innovative approaches to apprenticeship. In my last column, I discussed how my organization is implementing state-of-the-art blended learning models to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our electrical training programs.
Finally, we need to capitalize on the recent spotlight that apprenticeship has received from President Obama and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. If this is our shining moment, we need to push hard and promote to employers and our elected officials how critical it is for them to find ways to revitalize and reinvigorate the apprenticeship model. MT&AP
NJATC (www.njatc.org) is the training arm of the IBEW and NECA. It oversees 300 program sponsors and 40,000 apprentices in the electrical industry.