The apprentice(ship)

Politicians support apprenticeships as the country looks for another route to good jobs that don’t require the expense of college.

“For the life of me, I don’t know why we stigmatize vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders than philosophers.”

Maybe you remember hearing this assertion from Sen. Marco Rubio during the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee.

Within a short time, online news outlets were all too quick to tell us that, in fact, it was philosophers who made more money. A lot more. While we’re unlikely to find a modern day Socrates, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does say there are 23,210 post-secondary philosophy and religion teachers with an annual mean wage of $71,350. Meanwhile, the bureau says there are around 849,930 welders with a mean annual wage $40,040.

Red herring

Let’s not take that bait. That’s just a red herring on the end of that hook, anyway. If Rubio really thought that a career was measured solely by earnings, then he wouldn’t bother running against Donald Trump, a man with more dollar bills than brain cells. And, if Rubio really wanted to castigate an impractical college major, then he’d better look at what Carly Fiorina ended up accomplishing with her bachelor’s degree in not just philosophy, but – Are you ready for it? – medieval history.

In the end, we probably need both philosophers and welders. Thinkers. Doers. Or better yet, thinking doers and doing thinkers. Sounds like a tradesperson, doesn’t it?

Besides, Rubio’s comments were made as he argued for another type of education other than the four-year college degree, one that’s been treated like a dead-end for far too long.

Rubio said all this as he made the case for vocational training as a means of elevating pay and as an alternative route to a secure middle-income job. And, while he didn’t mention more formal apprenticeship training by name during the debate, the senator has also said many positives about that, too.

First-hand, hands-on

That’s a case worth discussing, rather than majors and paychecks. Apprenticeships are one of the world’s oldest forms of occupational training, and for good reason. Can you think of another winning combination of learning first-hand from an experienced tradesperson by way of hands-on teaching?
Rubio isn’t the only politician vocally supporting apprenticeships either. On the other side of the fence, Hillary Clinton has proposed that businesses receive a $1,500 tax credit for every apprentice hired. 

What’s more, Rubio made his remarks just days after the country’s first National Apprentice Week, and which promises to be an annual affair.

The Obama Administration launched a week-long promotion of apprenticeships during the week of November 1 to highlight nearly $200 million in grants for job-training programs.

The taxpayer-funded grants will go to train and hire more than 34,000 apprentices over the next five years in industries such as health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing, “while scaling up proven programs in construction, transportation and energy,” the Labor Department said, calling it an “unprecedented federal investment.”

All totaled, there are about 445,000 apprenticeships across the country, and officials said apprentices earn an average starting salary of more than $50,000. Over their careers, the administration said, they will earn about $300,000 more on average than their non-apprentice peers.

This isn’t the first sign of support from President Obama for apprenticeships. In his 2014 State of the Union address, he called on employers and educators to double the number of apprenticeships by 2019. The Labor Department said that since then, apprenticeships have grown by the largest amount in nearly a decade.

Fresh look

All this attention is a good thing for training that deserves a fresh look. And while much of apprenticeship training is affiliated with unions, there are plenty of examples of other approaches to take to training the next generation of tradespeople.

Heating & Plumbing Engineers, of Colorado Springs, Colo., for example, just launched its seventh apprenticeship class last September. It’s one of only two mechanical contractors in the state with an in-house, certified and registered program. 

HPE has 49 people in various stages of the four-year apprentice program, which teaches them to become plumbers, pipefitters and sheet-metal workers. Apprentices work 40 hours a week and are paid $14 an hour in their first year, with raises of up to a $1 an hour as they progress. They also attend classes for six hours a week during spring and fall semesters, where they learn the concepts of their fieldwork.

HPE's classes, where students also receive hands-on training in welding and other skills, take place at the company's central Colorado Springs headquarters. HPE, which employs 300 people, invests about $10,000 in each apprentice over the four years.

"They have at least four years of experience," said Reanna Werner, HPE’s talent manager, of recent graduates in the company's program. "They're licensed professionals, earning very good money and they're debt free, able to buy a home, start a family, live the American dream. We take great pride in turning out some of the best journeymen this state has to offer.”

By 2023, Colorado is expected to add 60,000 new construction jobs. With Colorado and Arizona being the top two states for construction, that also means there is a huge need for skilled trade workers.

Another story I picked up during Apprenticeship Week, comes from Young Plumbing & Heating, of Waterloo, Iowa, which currently has nine apprentices. In this case, Iowa is in the midst of promoting a “registered apprenticeship” approach that brings skills testing along with community college classroom instruction into the mix.

Iowa is one of the fastest growing states for registered apprenticeships, state officials say, noting that, in fiscal 2013-14, the state had a more than 20 percent increase in registered apprenticeships.

Young Plumbing & Heating relies on local Hawkeye Community College for the classroom instruction. The program includes 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and four years of classroom work.

"It gives them experience that they're ready to be on their own to take and pass the state test," said Travis Young, the company’s vice president, during an open house at the college during Apprenticeship Week. "It helps ensure in the future we're going to have people that can succeed in this industry."
Young described the registered apprentice process as "more formal" than traditional apprenticeships.

"It is more diverse, so students that go through this aren't just learning one aspect of plumbing or HVAC; they're using a wide range of skills and learning a diverse skill set," Young said.

All of which is needed today, he added.

"The systems we install are quite complex, and this training exposes the apprentices to a wide range of skill sets they're going to need to know in the future," he said.

A renewed emphasis on apprenticeships couldn’t come at a better time. Low-skilled workers can’t find jobs that pay enough. Many employers can’t find qualified workers for jobs at the ready. Even college graduates have been reported as not having the skills for jobs in the modern economy. And, much of the emphasis on college for the last generation or so has left the trades, with a greying workforce, starved for new talent to take over.

Not surprisingly, the newspaper account I read of Young Plumbing & Heating highlighted the interesting career path taken by Ellie Mollenhoff, one of the company’s current apprentices. Mollenhoff earned a degree in psychology from the University of Northern Iowa, but figured she’d also need a master’s degree to get ahead. That would mean more college and, as she put it, “I wasn’t sure that I want to go further into debt.”

This past recession has taken a toll on plenty of people and their chosen occupations. It doesn’t need to hold back the tradesperson-in-training.

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