Apprenticeships: An Untapped Resource in Advanced Manufacturing

Apprenticeship programs, a staple of the past, have largely fallen out of favor in the United States. As demand for highly skilled manufacturing talent intensifies, such programs remain a largely untapped source for advanced manufacturers facing a talent shortage.

An apprenticeship is a time-tested method of employee development that combines supervised on-the-job learning and job-related classroom education. While apprenticeship programs in the U.S. vary, most are based on the same theme: Apprentices spend a few years learning a highly skilled trade while getting paid as they work toward certification.

“The apprentice is able to work and go to school in a setting that works together, and in the end he or she receives an education and work experience that will sustain a career,” said Nicci Pagan, the apprenticeship associate at Gateway Technical College’s SC Johnson iMET Center in Sturtevant, Wis. Formerly Gateway’s Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation, the iMET Center provides industrial-trades apprenticeship training, in addition to a wide range of other engineering technology and construction sciences programs.

Apprentices and journeyworkers earn credentials that are recognized nationally and often globally, not to mention jobs that usually pay higher wages. Upon completion of an apprenticeship program, participants also tend to have higher annual earnings than those who do not participate. The estimated career earnings are an average $240,037 more than similar non-participants, according to Mathematica Policy Research.

Employer benefits include reduced turnover and, perhaps most important, a pipeline for new skilled workers trained not only to industry standards, but even to employer specifications.

“Employers are able to home-grow their employees to their needs and, in the end, receive a loyal employee who knows the ins and outs of the company and can help to sustain it,” Pagan told IMT Career Journal.

Although apprentices make up only about 0.3 percent of the total U.S. workforce, the upward trajectory of education costs in recent years could make apprenticeships a more viable avenue for people seeking education and professional development.

In the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship‘s (OA) fiscal year 2012, more than 147,000 individuals across the U.S. entered the apprenticeship system, up from about 130,000 in its FY 2011. Approximately 59,000 participants graduated from the apprenticeship system last year. Nationwide, there are more than 358,000 apprentices currently obtaining the skills necessary to succeed while earning the wages they need to build financial security.

“I believe that the cost of higher education does allow an opening for apprenticeship programs now and in the future, but it’s not the only one,” Pagan said. “The economy as a whole is the main contributor. The apprenticeship is one of the great opportunities we offer to bridging the recent employment gap.”

Apprenticeships to Bridge Advanced Manufacturing’s Talent Gap

Although apprenticeships in the U.S. are most associated with carpenters, electricians, and other trades, apprenticeship programs exist for skilled jobs in a variety of fields, including high-tech manufacturing. Today, registered apprentices in the U.S. are particularly concentrated in construction, energy, manufacturing, and transportation and communication occupations. As of February 2012, there were approximately 3,000 apprenticeship programs and 17,000 apprentices in U.S. manufacturing.

For the nation’s advanced manufacturing industry, these programs offer huge potential as a means of training and retaining much-needed talent in skill sets related to the industry’s four major occupational areas: machining; metal-forming; tool, die, and mold making; and machine building and maintenance.

In a 2011 survey of nearly 1,100 manufacturing executives, Deloitte and the National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) Manufacturing Institute found that 67 percent of respondents said they have a moderate to severe shortage of qualified workers, and 56 percent said they anticipate the shortage to worsen in the next three to five years. The findings further indicated that 5 percent of current jobs at respondent manufacturers were unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates.

When asked to look ahead three to five years, respondents to the survey indicated that access to a highly skilled, flexible workforce is the most important factor in their success, well ahead of such factors as new product innovation and increased market share.

Underscoring the issue facing advanced manufacturers, ManpowerGroup’s latest annual Talent Shortage Survey indicates that skilled trades positions, IT professionals, engineers, and technicians are among the most difficult to fill.

According to the Labor Department’s OA, jobs in metalworking will see the largest percentage of growth in the nation’s advanced manufacturing industry over the next few years. Skilled worker shortages and technological advances are expected to increase the demand for metalworkers in areas such as computer-control programmers and operators, welders, cutters, and machinists.

As the U.S. economy continues to improve, all of the iMET Center’s apprenticeship programs currently reflect that recovery, according to Pagan. The center’s Tool & Die and Maintenance Technician apprenticeship programs, in particular, have had a significant amount of interest.

In high-tech manufacturing and a wide variety of other industries, these programs enable companies to train workers for the exact skills needed within their positions, molding new recruits into ideal employees while filling vital positions to keep up production. Perhaps it is for this reason that evidence indicates a growing focus on apprenticeship programs among increasingly more American manufacturers.

“To address the immediate staffing needs of U.S. manufacturers, limited on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs are again being incorporated strategically into employee-employer joint efforts of skill acquisition,” according to The American, the online magazine of the conservative-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute. “While many U.S. manufacturing firms have reduced or eliminated the traditional apprenticeship model, there is evidence that this approach is returning.”

Pagan pointed to the success of a wide-ranging campaign by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) aimed at sparking interest in manufacturing apprenticeships. Through the first half of 2013, new manufacturing apprentices jumped 30 percent over the same period last year to 1,383, according to the DWD. From April 1 through June 30, the number of manufacturers participating in the state program increased by 67 companies compared with the same period last year.

In helping to meet the needs of high-growth industries, the nation’s apprenticeship system has a clear impact on the national economy by providing: a highly skilled workforce; an increased competitive edge in the global economy; a system to contribute to and sustain economic growth; and less need to import skilled workers.

“The economy benefits most of all,” Pagan said. “It gains in education, employment, and business, with all productive members improving themselves and the economy.”

Even as manufacturers report difficulties filling highly skilled jobs, there are growing concerns that their efforts to enhance the skills of current talent are falling short. This intensifying skills mismatch threatens the ongoing momentum of both the U.S. manufacturing industry and the nation’s economy. If American manufacturers are to continue their remarkable expansion, it’s critical that the shortage of skilled workers be addressed.

The structured, on-the-job training provided by apprenticeship programs, a staple of manufacturing’s past, could be its future.


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