Not your father’s apprenticeship

I recently completed a short six-week study on apprenticeship programs operating at community colleges located throughout Michigan. My objectives were simple: investigate the reasons behind the currently rising enrollment trends, gather program perspectives from colleges, employers and the state, and evaluate the study findings for any best practices.

Since I had successfully completed a journeyman toolmaker’s apprenticeship myself in the early 1990s, I entered into the project with a working understanding of how traditional U.S. Department of Labor registered apprenticeships operate. I had personally experienced the employer-employee relationship, and the student-school relationship.

In the 25-plus years since completing my own journey, some things about traditional apprenticeships have remained the same. For example, time commitment and school-work-life balance are still critical components of success. But many things concerning the structure and methodologies of apprenticeships have changed in the past two decades. For example:

  • conversion and credentialing of readiness courses or “pre-apprenticeships”
  • validating credentialing for previous military or work experience
  • greater application and acceptance of competency-based learning
  • expansion of certification options and additional degree completion pathways
  • advanced learning and teaching technologies and facilities
  • innovative methods of course delivery

Completing the study also created several new vantage points that as a student or apprentice I might not have been previously exposed to or been fully aware of, such as certain facets of the critical school-employer relationship, the financial relationship between school and state, and the interaction between the state and employers, which are all key components of a successful system.

Would you let your kids do it?

During an interview for my study, a study participant asked me whether I would recommend any of the apprenticeship programs we had just discussed to one of my own children, provided they had an interest in skilled trades. I can honestly say that prior to completing this investigation, I would have struggled with providing a confident answer. I experienced the benefits of an apprenticeship, but I could also recall the challenges. In a social culture that currently places greater emphasis on achieving a credential or diploma versus acquiring a trade or skill, it would require some convincing to make me (and my wife) comfortable that an apprenticeship was the best decision for our own children.

However, after getting new exposure to the changes and improvements that exist in these contemporary apprenticeship programs, I would have no hesitation endorsing an apprenticeship to anyone — including my own family members.

I can state with personal affirmation that today’s program is not your father’s apprenticeship. Companies and colleges are more engaged and involved. Students are provided better service and attention. Technologies are providing colleges the improved ability to teach skillsets with increasingly transferable value. Integration of computers and technologies have added other benefits that could not be achieved five or 10 years ago. Apprenticeships are hip and current.

Opening eyes to the new apprenticeships

My hope here is to help break the stigmas associated with the traditional model, and possibly to encourage others to do the same. A collection of comments and remarks gathered from discussions with study participants that I feel pays homage to the efforts and dedication these college, business and state leaders share for the burgeoning rebirth of apprenticeships in Michigan is compiled in the section following. My hope is that readers might be inspired to go seek out what has changed – and perhaps find ways to support a growing movement at their own colleges and companies. The message that apprenticeships are cool (again) needs to be shared in force to reverse the cyclic concern about the skills gap, and break through the stigma that apprenticeship is a dirty word, leading to a dirty career.

As part of data collection for the study, all participants (college, business, state) were asked to provide a candid response to the “Closing Thoughts Question,” as written below. The responses are summarized. Not all comments are positive, yet each is insightful to the different environment in which contemporary apprenticeship programs must operate.

Closing Thoughts Question: Why (in your opinion) are apprenticeships a significant game changer in higher education? How will apprenticeship programs interact with the ever-growing skills gap and the mounting momentum behind providing low to no cost college educational access for all?

  • “The apprenticeship programs have already experienced and addressed many of the challenges other parts of the college are going through—if internal communications were better, then some shared learning might benefit everyone.”
  • “Companies want ‘deeper’ employees—they want people who can do more with new technology. Most of our partner companies are led by people who completed an apprenticeship of their own; they know the value of hard work, and benefit of going through the process. It is our job to help them; to be partners, not providers.”
  • “We have placed too much emphasis in higher education on accreditation, on scoring, on metrics, and maintaining enrollments. Open access and free tuition will bring in people that we might not be able to help—then what will be expected? Apprenticeships focus on practical knowledge; gets you ready to work and has a career guarantee that most of our other programs can’t touch.”
  • “Apprenticeships are exploding—everyone wants to be involved. But what they are is still a mystery to the public, even to some companies. We need to educate everyone on the ‘how’ and ‘what’… as more people understand and embrace the model, we will realize its transference and usefulness.”
  • “We made apprenticeships a dirty word in the previous recession—when this latest recession hit, no one wanted to go back into the trades… now we have two generations of skilled labor to fill. I am not convinced it is a skills gap as much as a communications or message flaw. If I called my apprenticeship program a co-op or mentoring program, I would get more interest. But my H.R. thinks that might be misleading. We need to change the perception somehow.”
  • “I struggle with this. Our conversation has shown that we have some holes in our data. Apprenticeships are important to our economic engine, but it has to start with the companies. If they don’t help us understand what they want, we won’t know how to help them. That’s why we are comfortable with waiting for the company to come to us.”
  • “I look at every job and wonder ‘How could I make that an apprenticeship?’ There is not a job worth doing here that wouldn’t benefit from hands-on training.”
  • “The state wants CBL (competency-based learning). They want a skilled workforce. We have the ability to set the standard for CBL in apprenticeships. Grants are becoming a bigger role in our budgets, but grants are short term. Free tuition isn’t free. If we continue to engage employers and provide the skills they need, then employers will continue to pay tuition. It is self-sustaining if it’s done correctly.”

I believe the comments shared above have an inherent value all their own. Apprenticeships and other skilled trades operate largely on word-of-mouth solicitation. The only way the stigmas and doubt surrounding skilled trades and apprenticeships is going to change is by a movement from within the networks using apprenticeships today.

About the Author

Mark Dunneback
is an assistant professor of manufacturing at Ferris State University in Michigan.