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The Rise of the Apprentice

A growing number of employers are meeting short- and long-term staffing and learning-development needs by revamping an age-old concept: apprenticeships.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006
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Upon hearing the word "apprentice," the image that comes to mind might be that of Donald Trump rejecting one more would-be executive with the words, "You're fired!" But apprenticeships were common long before anyone had heard of The Donald.

In the Middle Ages, craftsmen learned their trades as apprentices, and the tradition continued in colonial America and on to the present.

As old as this practice may be, the use of apprentices is far from outdated. In fact, apprenticeship training has taken on new life in recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly half a million workers participate in more than 32,000 registered apprenticeship programs yearly, and the numbers are growing in an expanding array of occupations.

Apprentices start out as trainees who work under the tutelage of more experienced employees. Unlike interns, they are regarded as permanent employees who benefit from a progressive wage scale as they gain experience. In most cases, they must complete at least 2,000 hours of work experience and a minimum of 144 hours of related instruction. Requirements of 8,000 to 12,000 hours of supervised job experience are not uncommon. Once they complete their training, they're designated as journey workers, and they earn certification from the U.S. Department of Labor or a state apprenticeship agency. 

Apprenticeship proponents say all parties gain from this time-tested mechanism for developing workers. Employees gain recognized skills while advancing in well-paying and stable positions. At the same time, employers end up with a highly trained workforce and a pipeline for fueling growth or replacing skilled workers lost to retirement.

"The related instruction piece of apprenticeship ensures that employees understand the theoretical aspects of the occupation," says Pat Nagy, director of the Vermont Registered Apprenticeship Program. "The on-the-job-training piece ensures that workers are well-supervised and are trained in all aspects of the trade."

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At its manufacturing facility in Toledo, Ohio, Libbey Glass has nearly 300 workers who have gone through the apprentice program, 25 of whom are currently enrolled. Employees concentrate on areas such as mold making, machine repair, mill righting and maintenance repair.

 "From an hourly employee's perspective, these programs are viewed to be the premier employment opportunities within our company," says Paul Kortier, plant training leader. According to him, wage rates for the apprenticeship/journeyman programs are among the highest in the company. Also popular is the fact that most apprentices are scheduled to work day shifts instead of the swing shifts required for other jobs.

"Employees eagerly wait for these opportunities to open, even though their wait in some cases may be years," Kortier says. "However, newly hired workers who possess the aptitude to pass the required test can enter into the programs as soon as they become employees."

Although employees who complete an apprenticeship program with Libbey are not obligated to continue their employment, retention rates are high.

"We have found that those who have completed the program have tended to stay with our company until retirement," Kortier says. "We would like to think the loyalty is due, in part, to the significant investment we've made in each of the men and women over the years and the good working environment, pay and other conditions that exist."

While Libbey officials are high on the program, its success has not come cheaply.

"There is a substantial investment made to get an apprentice to the journeyman status," says Kortier. While employees are completing their apprenticeships, which run from two to five years in length, the company pays for not only their tuition at a local community college, but also their time spent attending classes along with books, supplies and tools. In addition, the time spent in on-the-job training adds up.

"Although these folks are performing meaningful work during their OJT period, each apprentice requires the support of a journeyman for each work assignment," he says. "This means work is being performed using two full-time equivalents where one FTE would normally be required."

The program also demands a major administrative commitment.

In line with Department of Labor standards, apprentices are evaluated every 1,000 hours to ensure they are receiving proper attention during their on-the-job experience. The review sessions are conducted by a committee represented by management and department journeymen. That group also develops tests and other evaluation materials.

"Initial costs can be large during the development of a program in terms of time, materials and human resources," Kortier says. "Once the program is operational, and depending upon the number of apprentices in the program, the time-and-labor component continues to be high to support the administration of each apprentice's personal data and training initiative. The hourly committee members cannot perform their normal duties at this time, so their workload has to be spread among other employees or rescheduled for a later date if possible."

For Libbey, the extra learning achieved by apprentices has brought a number of positive results.

"The educational experiences have developed these individuals into employees who are more receptive to change in a constantly changing environment," says Kortier. "They also show a readiness to share their talents and creativity to help us reach our company's mission."

The major advantage of apprenticeship programs is the ability to perform work in-house and the ease of scheduling these opportunities, says Kortier.

"Although outside contract labor is available and, in some instances, more cost-effective, our employees have a vested interest in performing the work to support themselves and their fellow employees," he says. "This is important in facilities such as ours that have bargaining-unit employees."

Another plus is that apprentices are hired from within the organization, providing promotional opportunities for employees.

"This is something that all employees look for when selecting an employer," Kortier says. "Once these employees have completed their education, they become obvious candidates for additional promotional opportunities, leading up to and including management positions within our company."

Apprenticeship training has also been a success at the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, an electric and water utility, where electricians and linemen acquire key skills as apprentices.

"The training is specific to our organization, our plants and our equipment," says Marc Conklin, manager of human resources for the board. "Upon completion of an apprenticeship program, the employee is fully trained for work in our organization."

Even while employees are still being trained, Conklin says, they provide value through the work they're doing.

"Apprenticeship can be the most valuable type of training available," he says. "Proper establishment of apprenticeship standards can tailor the training and the work experience to meet your specific needs."

At Libbey Glass, for instance, much of the training has been focused on maintenance repair, which has emerged in recent years as an area of particular need in creating and repairing the company's production mold equipment. To this end, a single apprentice category has been developed by combining key standards from eight former stand-alone apprenticeships including electricians, plumbers and pipe fitters, carpenters and painters.

More than Just Trades

While apprenticeships in construction trades, such as carpentry and sheet-metal working, may be best known, recent trends have found these initiatives expanding into other areas. Such programs in information technology, environmental protection, biotechnology, health care and other occupational areas have become more common.

At CVS/pharmacy, apprenticeship programs in pharmacy and photo-lab operations represent both local and national initiatives.

"Nationally, we have concentrated on developing an apprenticeship program for our pharmacy support-staff positions in conjunction with the national office of apprenticeship training," says Ernie DuPont, director of workforce development. "The model we have developed consists of three distinct levels and is based, in part, on the very successful CVS/pharmacy technician-training program."

On a local level, CVS has also partnered with the District of Columbia's Department of Employment Services to develop both a pharmacy-technician apprenticeship program and a photo-lab-technician apprenticeship program.

"The apprenticeship program has helped us to attract job candidates that we would not have otherwise connected with," DuPont says. "These candidates may have never considered a career in the pharmacy area had [this] program not existed."

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DuPont says negative perceptions that may occur at program inception can be overcome as the project develops. For example, managers may perceive the apprenticeship program as causing additional work due to increased paperwork and reporting requirements.

"But once the benefits of the program are fully realized," he says, "such perceptions are easily addressed."

The same is true of concerns about the hiring process, where tight screening of potential apprenticeship candidates is important, according to DuPont.

 "The key here is to maintain strong, open communication between the company and the partnering workforce agencies," he says.

DuPont feels the apprenticeship approach holds great promise for the future.

"Collaboration within the public-workforce investment system has become an outstanding way of reaching a broader potential workforce," he says. "In combination with other organizations, the apprenticeship model can be an effective method for preparing our current and future workforce."

Not a Quick Fix

While those experienced with apprenticeships tend to be enthusiastic about their potential, they caution against taking this approach too lightly.

"If you need fully trained apprentices to replace an existing workforce in the near future, you'd better start the process now," says Jerry Briggs, director of apprenticeship with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. "The longer you wait, the more time will be needed for training your employees using apprenticeship, and the more likely you will begin to lose older employees."

It's also important to analyze the age of the workforce.

"Due to the time constraints required to develop an apprentice into a journeyman, management has to be cognizant of the age of its existing workforce to anticipate retirements and unexpected departures," says Kortier. "You also need a plan to fill these openings in a timely manner without disrupting normal plant functions and future initiatives."

Employers interested in starting a registered program must also be prepared to follow government guidelines in several areas. For example, organizations with more than five employees must develop and follow an affirmative-action plan.

To learn about these and other requirements, consult knowledgeable government sources. (To find a list of contacts, check out the Department of Labor's Web site on the subject here).

"Work with the appropriate state or federal apprenticeship representative to gain a complete understanding of how your company can use apprenticeship as a tool to enhance competitiveness," says Gene Ellis, director of apprenticeship standards for the Maine Department of Labor. "Then, build the best program you have the capacity to support. Talk with other sponsors in your industry organizations to learn from their experiences."

DuPont points out that successful apprenticeship programs require a high level of commitment from within the organization.

"Public workforce programs such as apprenticeships take an investment of time and effort on behalf of a company," he says. "In order to make good business sense, it's therefore necessary to enlist broad support internally from line and upper management as well as leverage existing public resources. Collaboration with educational and community organizations that share similar workforce goals is an important step toward the success of any workforce program."

If the cost of apprenticeships presents a barrier, Kortier suggests, employers should consider working with local colleges to develop postsecondary-degree programs that coincide with the educational requirements of a particular apprenticeship program. Libbey has recently taken this path in cooperation with Owens Community and Technical College. Although the program is in the early stages, the expected benefit to the company is the ability to hire workers who have completed their educational requirements for the apprenticeship before they become employees.

"Once these individuals are hired, the only component that has to be completed is the OJT hours," he says. "In our case, these hours are completed ahead of schedule due to overtime opportunities."

Despite the commitment involved, many employers have found apprenticeships provide just the right combination of classroom and on-the-job training. In fact, a less-structured variation might be worth considering.

"Even if you decide not to use a registered apprenticeship program for fear of too much red tape, please at least train your employees using the apprenticeship model," says Briggs. "It works, and employers have been using it since the Middle Ages to transfer skills from one person to the next."

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