Industry Market Trends

Q&A on Aerospace Apprenticeships: AJAC Executive Director Laura Hopkins

Nov 04, 2013

The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) aims to leverage apprenticeship programs to help meet Washington state's growing need for aerospace workers.

Washington is the world leader in aerospace production and home to many companies that design and manufacture products ranging from tires and bolts to in-flight entertainment systems. A large number of workers at those companies are expected to retire during the next decade, and the industry anticipates a need for 5,000 additional aerospace workers each year to fill those positions in the state.

To help fill those jobs, the nonprofit AJAC and its advisory committee, comprised of employers and employees, develop and implement registered apprenticeship programs that offer on-the-job training to employees looking to upgrade their skills. Within two to four years, an apprentice can earn journey-level certification as a master tradesperson and pursue a college degree.

Laura Hopkins, AJAC's executive director, recently answered some of ThomasNet News Career Journal's questions about the role and benefits of apprenticeships in the U.S. aerospace industry and AJAC's apprenticeship programs.

Career Journal: For aerospace manufacturers, in particular, what would you say are key benefits of apprenticeship programs?

Hopkins: For aerospace manufacturing companies, apprenticeship offers a number of major benefits. For one, experienced employees can quickly transfer years of experience, knowledge, tricks of the trade, and best practices to apprentices. This can help reduce the risk of skill shortages as current employees retire, while creating skilled workers without the need to develop individual training programs internally.

Rework is also reduced and costs are lowered, since the apprentice receives on-the-job training on the employer's shop floor and is gaining skills and knowledge about the company's standards and procedures. On-site training enables products to be manufactured quickly with consistent and reliable processes, ensuring on-time delivery and customer satisfaction.

For employers, apprentices cost less to employ initially and are shown to work harder. An employer increases apprentice pay only as they become more skilled and productive. Productivity also increases for employees mentored on the job at the company's facility compared with employees trained outside the facility. Studies show homegrown employees are more industrious and show greater loyalty. Apprentices often outperform traditional employees by year five and are an investment in a business' future.

In addition to these benefits, apprenticeships can also lead to lower turnover rates and increased morale and loyalty. When apprentices complete an apprenticeship program at a company, they are more inclined to grow with that company, because they are already invested in it, fostering a culture of continual learning and improvement in turn.

Career Journal: Are there benefits specific to AJAC's programs?

Hopkins: AJAC apprentices receive on-the-job training on multiple machines that allow companies to move apprentices around the shop floor where help is needed. This direct transfer of knowledge and apprentice rotation from machine to machine creates a flexible workforce and a master machinist capable of producing the highest-quality products.

Career Journal: For someone looking to begin, or advance, his or her technical career in aerospace, can you cite the key benefits of becoming an apprentice?

Hopkins: For one, apprenticeship combines on-the-job training -- 93 percent of the time -- and classroom instruction -- 7 percent of the time. And as an apprentice, you earn while you learn: Apprentices work at a full-time job while training with a mentor. Apprentices earn a living plus benefits. Plus, apprentices receive pay increases as they learn and perform more complex tasks proficiently.

In general, apprentices attend class only one to two nights per week and have no college loans to pay back at the end of the apprenticeship program. In Washington state, apprentices receive a 50 percent reduction in community or technical college tuition costs for classes. At the end of the program, apprentices earn a journey-level certificate.

Career Journal: What are the major considerations when determining whether apprenticeship is the right avenue for a professional's career?

Hopkins: Ensure you have a solid foundation in basic math, mechanical aptitude -- e.g., experience in auto or engine repair, woodworking, metalworking, etc. -- and knowledge of, or experience in, the production process, such as meeting deadlines, following directions, achieving goals, measuring, etc.

A prospective apprentice should also ensure he or she can commit to the program for its full duration, work the required hours while receiving on-the-job training, demonstrate progress on the job, submit monthly work progress reports, and attend and complete the required/related supplemental instruction that is typically held off-hours.

Career Journal: Are there specific questions a prospective apprentice should ask before pursuing an apprenticeship program?

Hopkins: Questions to ask include: What occupations have training available? How can I get started with an apprenticeship program? Do I need to be already employed? With AJAC's apprenticeship program, apprentices must be employed with one of AJAC's participating employers.

Another important question to ask: How long does the apprenticeship program last? For example, AJAC's programs last between two and four years.

It's also important to consider the apprenticeship program's minimum qualifications. AJAC's program requires an apprentice to be at least 18 years of age, be a high school graduate, or have a GED or be working toward a GED with proof of successful completion of the GED within six months of entering the apprenticeship, and have successfully passed college-level math and English classes or completed an assessment test.

Career Journal: How does AJAC determine the aerospace occupations or disciplines covered in its apprenticeship and training programs?

Hopkins: AJAC and its advisory committee -- comprised of employers and employees -- have developed and implemented AJAC's apprenticeship programs based on employer and industry needs for the following occupations: machinist (aircraft-oriented), aircraft airframe mechanic, precision metal fabricator, and tool and die maker. This committee has contributed time, expertise, and knowledge to curriculum development and mentor programs.