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Apprenticeships Help Close The Skills Gap. So Why Are They In Decline?

By Expert Author: Gerolf Schmidt

Apprenticeships Help Close the Skills Gap. So Why Are They in Decline?
• It is the perfect and simple plan: provide qualified employees to employers. Indeed, apprenticeships allow workers to acquire the very skills they need. But why are apprenticeships on the wane?

Here is the story:

When you ask CEOs and corporate manpower staff whether they get the right kind of workers they need, they will complain about a gap in employee abilities that put productivity and growth at risk — not only inside their organizations but also in the greater economy.

• However, employers and state lawmakers have been distinctly half-hearted about a tested solution to the pressing issue: apprenticeships.
Apprenticeships can provide a perfect marriage of the skills employers look for and the training workers derive, states Robert Lerman, an American University economics professor.

"It is a great model for passing on skills from one generation to the next," declares John Ladd, director of the Department of Labor's Office of Apprenticeship.

Nonetheless, as the Labor Department announces, formal programs that unite on-the-job training with mentorships and classroom education went down 40% in the U.S. from 2003 to 2013.
Which leads us to ask the question: If the solution to this crucial problem lies in apprenticeships, how come so much resistance exists?

Blue-Collar Image

It seems the biggest constraint is that two-thirds of apprenticeship programs in the U.S. apply in the construction industry, projecting a blue-collar image that dampens enthusiasm among young people and the companies which could provide jobs for them. Construction unions, which have wide influence among many of the state agencies concerning apprenticeships, have not done enough to reach out to other industries, Mr. Lerman says.

Likewise, entrepreneurs and managers oftentimes avoid apprenticeships because of their connection with unions. "There's an underlying fear among employers" that unions want to interfere by organizing workers, or that any apprenticeship plan might be controlled by a union, says J. Ronald De Juliis, labor and industry head at Maryland's Department of Labor.

However, De Juliis and others admit, things can be entirely different. At present, apprenticeships involve many more industries than the few trades that welcomed the earn-and-learn paradigm starting in 1937 when the National Apprenticeship Act was implemented. Nursing aides, wastewater technicians and computer-system managers are a few of the jobs for which apprentices can find training in.

At the beginning of this month, President Obama allocated $100 million for apprenticeship programs in high-growth industries, and acknowledged new programs in information technology, health care and supply-chain management.

Still, another constraint is a commonly held idea that young people should remain in school and then find a job. Supporters of apprenticeship programs believe this view is ill-advised.

College degrees and internships do not generate the same quality of worker as thorough, hands-on apprenticeships, states director Brad Neese of Apprenticeship Carolina, a program of the South Carolina Technical College System. Companies are seeing "a genuine lack of applicability when it concerns skill level" from college graduates, Mr. Neese says. "Interns do grunt work, generally." However, he says, "an apprenticeship is a real job."

Moreover, some companies are anxious that employees will leave for better-paying jobs right after they have acquired their necessary skills. For them, an apprenticeship is like training workers for other companies to ultimately benefit from.

In many cases, however, employers discover that apprenticeships actually encourage retention, as workers who go through apprenticeship programs realize the investment their employers put into their professional growth and repay the good turn with a greater sense of loyalty.

"The apprenticeship paradigm allows us to convince people there is a career path within this company," says Robby Hill, owner of HillSouth, a Florence, S.C., technology consulting company making good use of South Carolina's on-the-job training program.

New employees envision doors opening for them in the future, along with a distinctly programmed ladder of skills training and salary improvements, says Mr. Hill, whose 22-person company provides apprenticeships for IT and administrative-support workers. The company also requests employees to enter into a non-compete agreement as they get certified for new skills.

Innovative Thinking

Advocates of apprenticeships claim that joining on-the-job training with related education and benchmarks can be undertaken in any job. They cite programs in states such as South Carolina and Wisconsin as getting positive output.

There are now apprenticeships for computer professionals and registered nursing aides in South Carolina, where the number of businesses providing apprenticeships has increased to 647 from only 90 in 2007. About 4,700 workers who underwent South Carolina's apprentice program are now employed full-time.

To get employers engaged in apprenticeships, the state provides a $1,000 yearly tax credit for every apprentice included in the payroll. "That opens the door somehow," states Mr. Neese. "For a small business, the credit can erase the education expenses for an apprentice program.”
"We have endeavored to make the tax credit as user-friendly as we can," he adds. "We have a very short one-page form that simply asks, 'How many apprentices are in your firm?' and then you multiple the number by $1,000."

Wisconsin, which has presently almost 8,000 apprentices, is working to augment training positions for such tasks as truck driving as well as high-tech manufacturing.

"We are anticipating employee deficits in health care and advanced manufacturing," claims director Karen Morgan of Wisconsin's Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards. The Governor's Council on Workforce Investment is considering some steps to solve the problem, she says. The state is launching some programs to apply robotics and high-level welding to its normal apprenticeship training.

"We are making our programs more adaptable," Ms. Morgan says, to highlight to manufacturers the importance that apprenticeships can provide for a sector experiencing fast modernization.

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