The Value of an Apprentice: Business Life
By Carrie Pauling
Apprenticeships are a viable, cost-efficient answer to the growing problem of skills-gaps plaguing industries nationwide.
After they turn their tassels and toss their caps, graduating high school seniors head off to colleges and universities in droves. This year, 70 percent of high school seniors headed off to college.
While that might seem like a desirable national accomplishment, when students don’t pick academic programs that align with available jobs, a problem emerges. Skills gap—the difference between skills that employers want and need, and the skills the workforce offers—is erupting nationwide.
Baby boomers are retiring, taking their knowledge, experience and work ethic with them. Industries, including manufacturing suffer shortages in mechatronics, welding, robotics and machining. Pharmaceutical and healthcare industries suffer from a lack of skilled, reliable workers. “High schools seem to be strictly college focused, but not everyone aspires to college,” said Ron Kemp, director of manufacturing at Ward Manufacturing, Blossburg, Pa. “There are jobs out there available for those wanting to work.”
Kemp isn’t the only one on the hunt for skilled workers. More than 100 people from 70 companies throughout Pennsylvania and the United States gathered last May at Pennsylvania College of Technology’s second annual Apprenticeship Summit, hoping to find solutions to their own skills gap troubles.
One answer: apprenticeships
“Apprentices are not internships, they’re not job shadowing,” said the summit keynote speaker Eric Seleznow, senior advisor of Jobs For the Future in Washington, D.C. “The worker gets paid; the effort can culminate in a recognized post-secondary credential,” he said. And employers are seeing a 91 percent retention rate on the employees they advance through apprenticeship programs.
The Apprenticeship Program developed by Workforce Development at Penn College offers customized on-the-job training paired with related technical instruction to cultivate high-tech skills specific to company’s needs. It’s a win-win. For the employee, it’s an “earn as you learn” opportunity. Workers who do complete apprenticeship programs have the potential to earn $300,000 additional dollars over the course of her career, compared to peers who don’t.
Benefits to the employer are numerous. For every dollar an organization invests in an apprenticeship program, they reportedly see a dollar and a half gain in return. Joe Miller, senior human resources professional at First Quality Enterprise, addressed the summit participants from the perspective of a company that has used apprenticeships to develop and strengthen its workforce.
“Apprenticeship opportunities are a great recruitment tool,” said Miller. “To get an industry certification and potential degree while working—it’s education plus compensation.”
Apprenticeships also offer better business advantage. “Employees are better skilled, they take more ownership in the process, they become proactive,” said Miller. First Quality’s apprentices have become confident and competent technicians. “The image of manufacturing is a dirty, dying industry, but the new world of higher tech, higher paying jobs is a reality.”
Classroom and workplace training
Penn College’s Workforce Development office has coordinated with businesses for over three years to develop and specialize the Apprenticeship Program. The Mechatronics program trains maintenance technicians to troubleshoot, repair, install and maintain production machinery. Now working with about 30 companies and over 100 apprentices, the department has added an Industrial Manufacturing Technician program, building foundational skills for operators and technicians, and even an Emergency Medical Technician program, among others.
Apprenticeship courses require the equivalent of 2,144 total hours of training, including 144 classroom hours to teach theory and reinforce essential skills like communication, teamwork, conflict management and emotional intelligence. The 2,000 hours are completed in the workplace, learning beside journey workers, experts who act as mentors. At the end of the program, apprentices earn nationally recognized credentials.
Tyler Smith of West Pharmaceuticals in Jersey Shore, Pa, worked production for five years after high school. When he voiced an interest in learning maintenance, troubleshooting and fixing machines, his managers recommended him as an ideal candidate for an apprenticeship. Smith started his four-year program last year, completing the mechanical aspect and now learning industrial electricity.
“I was scared to death to do it,” Smith admitted. Not a particularly strong student in high school, he never anticipated a future that included college. “The classroom schedule and working are the easy part,” Smith said. Completing the classwork is more of a challenge, but the company is cooperative and supportive, and they built his program around his learning preferences. “Some people can take a class online,” Smith said, “but I learn better in person.”
Smith juggles family—he’s the father of a toddler, and is expecting another baby in December—work and studies. “I realized it was something I had to do for my family.”
The role of pre-apprenticeships
Shannon Munro, vice president for Workforce Development at Penn College, said another step in addressing the skills gap is the pre-apprenticeship program developed for high school students. “This program allows for job exploration and helps link candidates to employers,” said Munro.
The program, targeted for 9th through 12th graders, runs from August through June and prepares high schoolers with foundational skills to enter a variety of manufacturing jobs. “It’s a pathway toward future employment,” notes Munro.
Students leave the program with a recognized Manufacturing Technician 1 (MT1) certification, better prepared to decide if post-secondary education or a direct path into employment is right for them.
Miller says that although today’s high schools “glamorize university education with a college-for-all philosophy,” there are many opportunities in high tech manufacturing and industry, and correspondingly companies who need skilled workers. As far as Smith is concerned, about the value of his apprenticeship experience, he said, “I think West should send as many people as they can possibly afford!”
Carrie Pauling is a freelance writer in the Williamsport area who can’t help but wonder if a high-tech apprenticeship would have been more lucrative than her college degree in English.