Dean Barber

It’s Time to Appreciate Apprenticeships

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on June 25, 2017 at 7:44 pm

A few years ago, I attended an event in which a high ranking officer of the National Association of Manufacturers was giving a speech about the dire need for skilled workers in the United States.

Afterward, I approached the speech giver and asked why there was little impetus for apprenticeship programs in the U.S., as there was in Germany.

“We’re not Germany,” the NAM officer said and left it at that. Nothing else.

To say that answer was unfulfilling is an understatement. My first urge was to reply, “No sh*t, Sherlock,” but I did not.

A Great Insufficiency

I understand that education and training systems evolve from every nation’s unique social, cultural and political climate. I get that. But it’s also painfully clear to me of our nation’s insufficient education and training system.

In my role as a consultant, I’ve been to too many communities where vocational training is paltry to say the least, where economic developers and community college presidents have no working relationships, and where industry and local educators are not talking.

I can think of three rural communities that I visited recently where there were community colleges, but the only vocational classes being offered were in cosmetology. Really?

If there is one single aspect that can really give a community, big or small, a competitive advantage in terms of business attraction, but also in retention and expansion, it is vocational training. And yet, too many times, I just don’t see it. Mind you, I look for it, but it’s just not happening in many places.

We’re All Guilty

I believe the largely lackluster state of vocational education in this country is the single biggest failing of economic development. But please understand that I am not blaming economic developers. Parents, educators, industry, heck, we are all guilty here.

We tell young people to go to college and get your bachelor’s degree. Never mind that less than half of those who enroll in college will actually get one. Those who do get their four-year degree come out of school with crushing levels of debt.

Now marry this with the fact that the U.S. is not producing sufficient numbers of skilled workers to meet employer demand. There were 6 million job openings in April, a record high, at a time when 6.9 million are unemployed.

About 95 percent of employers say they’re having difficulty finding skilled and available workers, according to a recent survey by Business Roundtable.

President Trump Weighs In

Earlier this month, President Trump announced plans for advancing apprenticeships and work-based learning as central strategies for addressing the skills gap and preparing the U.S. work force for the jobs of the future.

On the face of it, this sounds like a very good thing. It well might deepen collaboration among community colleges, employers, labor, work force boards and other partners in developing high-quality work-based training programs. Community colleges in particular could play a vital role in apprenticeships, providing the classroom instruction that complements on-the-job training.

A Bipartisan Goal

I say “might” and “could” largely because of the weak or sometimes nonexistent impacts of many federal training programs. White House officials say the current setup for job training programs — there are 31 different job training programs across 14 government agencies — doesn’t make sense.

Still, the idea of apprenticeships has become a bipartisan goal. (And you don’t see too many of those emanating from Washington these days.) Bipartisan bills in Congress call for providing tax credits to companies that offer apprenticeships.

Some states, Michigan and South Carolina come to my immediate mind, are taking steps aimed at expanding apprenticeships. Janet Yellen, the chair of the Federal Reserve board, has praised South Carolina’s Apprenticeship Carolina.

Earn While They Learn   

An apprenticeship is a combination of on-the-job training and related classroom instruction under the supervision of a journey-level craft person or trade professional in which workers learn the practical and theoretical aspects of a highly skilled occupation.

The best part is that apprenticeships allow people to develop needed skills while they earn money. For their part, employers gain a pipeline of skilled workers who have been shown to increase productivity and boost the bottom line.

“Apprenticeships place students into great jobs, without the crippling debt of traditional four-year college degrees. Instead apprentices earn, while they learn,” President Trump said in signing an executive order that would roughly double to $200 million the taxpayer money spent on learn-to-earn programs.

The president’s executive order for the “Apprenticeship and Workforce of Tomorrow” program includes a call for expanding apprenticeships in high schools, Job Corps, community colleges and four-year colleges. It gives access to the formerly incarcerated, members of the armed forces and veterans.

It mandates that the secretaries of commerce and labor encourage business leaders to use apprenticeships in such key sectors as manufacturing, infrastructure, cybersecurity and healthcare.

According to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, registered apprenticeship programs have resulted in jobs paying an average of $60,000 per year. About 87 percent of apprentices in the U.S. are employed after completing their training programs.

Minuscule in Comparison

The number of apprentices in the U.S. fell from 488,000 in 2003 to 285,000 in 2012. But that number rose back up to 450,000 by last year, in part due to the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

With a projected shortage of 5 million skilled workers by 2020, an expanded apprenticeship system would clearly go a long way toward filling the gap. But the number of apprenticeships in the U.S. is minuscule for the size of the economy, and in comparison to other industrialized western countries.

That’s due in large part because both employers and employees in the U.S. have little understanding about what apprenticeships are and the value that they provide.

This basic misunderstanding means that U.S. companies are less willing to pay for apprenticeships.

The German Model

It’s markedly different in Germany, where apprenticeship programs date back to the Middle Ages and continue in large part because of the country’s robust manufacturing sector.

German apprentices spend between three and four days a week training at a company and then one or two days at a public vocational school. The company pays wages and tuition.

After three years, apprentices take exams to receive nationally recognized certificates in their occupation. Many continue working full time at the company.

Thanks in large part to its apprenticeship programs, unemployment for German youth is one of the lowest in any of the world’s advanced economies: 6.5 percent as of January 2017, compared to an estimated 11.5 percent in the U.S.

The appeal of vocational training in Germany, which has adapted apprenticeship training to many middle-skills positions, from nurses’ aides and mechanics to bookkeepers and child-care workers, is that employment after graduation is almost practically guaranteed.

That virtual promise of employment is why about half of German high school graduates go into vocational programs.

Not For the Dumb Kids

Not so in the U.S., where four-year university degrees are seen as a panacea to good-paying jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said two-thirds of high school graduates who enrolled in college in 2015 opted for four-year degrees.

And let’s face it, there remains in this country a stigma about vocational training, which perplexes me to no end. It’s for the dumb kids, when it is not and should never have been viewed as such.

In recent years, there’s been a greater push for the U.S. to adopt apprenticeship training programs and President Trump’s executive order exemplifies that. I only hope it gains momentum and becomes a real force in the private sector.

No, we’re not Germany. And Germany is not us. But that is not to say that we cannot learn, adapt and modify and make it our own.

We can come to appreciate apprenticeships and better vocational training if we only just do it. Frankly, I think we have no choice if we’re going to remain a competitive nation.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. BBA helps companies and communities. Mr. Barber is available as a keynotes speaker and can be reached at


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