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Tina Casey headshot

Would a National Apprenticeship Policy Solve the U.S. Labor Crunch?

By Tina Casey

In Scotland, the central government provides significant support for workforce development through the Skills Development Scotland agency. Among other missions, SDS directs Scotland's national apprenticeship programs and prioritizes areas of focus. That's a far cry from the US, where employers act on a piecemeal basis to cultivate the workforce of tomorrow. That situation is not likely to change, but U.S. employers can still pick up some useful pointers by taking a look at the SDS approach.

Apprenticeships in Scotland

Skills Development Scotland launched in 2008 on the heels of the global financial crisis, as a merger between several existing career and workforce agencies. It takes a holistic approach to the national workforce with a focus on diversity, inclusion and opportunities "for those who need it most." In a 2017 report, SDS Chief Executive Damien Yeats noted that Scotland's economic recovery since 2008 has been impressive overall, but the strong growth masks a deepening wage gap due to the rise of part-time jobs, temp work and self-employment.

To address this gap, SDS offers three basic types of apprenticeships that aim at getting workers a good start in the labor force along with prospects for career growth.

Foundation Apprenticeships are work-based programs for students still in secondary school, leading to college or non-college careers in 12 fields that match growth areas in the Scottish economy.

The emphasis is on helping students develop broad or "soft" job skills before leaving school. The program also helps employers spot talent. SDS cites Stephen McNab, head of the apprenticeship programs at GE Caledonian:

Foundation Apprenticeships give us a solid talent pipeline a year in advance. We get an idea of peoples’ potential a year earlier and, without a doubt, it helps us find the right people.
Graduate Apprenticeships launched in 2017 with the goal of creating academic opportunities for people already in the workforce. The focus is on areas of study in high demand fields that all but guarantee career advancement, thereby lowering the risk of investing time and money in a higher degree.

Ian McDonald, contracts manager at the construction firm Morgan Sindall, notes that this tailored "earn-as-you-learn" approach has "the potential to develop well-rounded individuals who are both academically and professionally qualified."

Both of these programs can be viewed through the lens of diversity and inclusion, and that aspect of social engineering comes out more clearly in the third program, Modern Apprenticeships.

The Modern Apprenticeships program provides financial support for specific on-the-job training in 80 targeted career fields, some of which lead to the equivalent of a degree.

In its goals for 2015-2020, SDS paid particular attention to improving diversity in the Modern Apprenticeships program. That resulted in the development of a detailed Equalities Action Plan:

This Equalities Action Plan outlines the challenges to be addressed, and the actions which our organisation will undertake with partners specifically to improve the participation of disabled and Black Minority Ethnic (BME) groups and care leavers in Modern Apprenticeships, as well as addressing gender imbalance within the uptake of occupational frameworks. Whilst some specific objectives exist for these four groups, the plan will also embrace the wider goal of improving equality of access for all.

How apprenticeships open doors

For an example of the diversity opportunities opened up by Scotland's apprenticeship program, take a closer look at GE Caledonian. In celebration of Apprenticeship Week last March, the company's Prestwick Aerospace division highlighted the story of Tracy Govan.

After 11 years of spinning her wheels in a supermarket job, Govan switched gears and entered an apprenticeship program through Ayrshire College as an engine mechanic at Prestwick. Now her future looks brighter:

...The benefit of being an apprentice is that you can put the theory you learn at college into practice and learn as you go. Actually being involved in the work is great. I’ll get a recognised qualification as well as trade papers.

It’s amazing the opportunities that are out there working for a multinational company like GE Caledonian. Once I finish my apprenticeship, I’d like to continue working for GE Caledonian, the opportunities are definitely there.

The program has worked out for GE as well. Last month the company announced that it has taken on a new group of 14 apprentices, with 13 coming from Ayrshire. McNab underscores the benefits of close communication with its academic partner:
It’s key to our business that we have these links. We know they’re reliable, and the candidates we get from the College are top notch.

Ayrshire College is great at coming along and asking what our needs are, finding out if the course meets our requirements and what, if anything, could be changed. I value those interactions as the College is looking at how we can strengthen this relationship, how can we build on it and how can we move forward.

Why start your own apprenticeship program?

Here in the US, the corollary to the Modern Apprenticeship program consists of vocational high schools and community college. The situation is complicated, though, by the existence of for-profit colleges and other private sector educational enterprises -- Trump University being one high profile example -- with a history of making false promises to students. Aside from the loss of time and opportunity, students are further burdened with school loans.

The Obama Administration worked to curb some of the most egregious abuses in for-profit schools, and placed more emphasis on public community colleges for career advancement. However, that progress is being undermined by the Trump administration.

A number of other factors have combined to weaken the prospects for a strong national apprenticeship policy in the US, especially in terms of addressing the wage gap.

U.S. labor unions, for example, have been an important source of apprenticeship programs in the US. Toward the later half of the 20th century they were credited with impacts on income equality, diversity and the assimilation. However, union membership, and its political influence, has been waning for generations.

Other factors include the decline in traditional manufacturing jobs and the emergence of next-generation manufacturing, the rise of the gig economy, and the practice of taking on part-time staff and vendors rather than putting more full time employees on the payroll. In addition,  burdensome scheduling practices like "on-call" can also prevents part-time employees from supplementing their income.

The absence of a coordinated plan for workforce development is already beginning to impact employers in the US. According to a new report from Moody's, employers in key sectors ranging from truck driver to software developer are struggling to fill vacancies, and the situation is all but certain to grow worse.

How to start your own apprenticeship program

In the absence of a formal, national apprenticeship program, U.S. businesses are left to their own devices. This is not necessarily a crippling problem for large companies that can dedicate an entire office to coordinating workforce development with local schools and other public resources, in addition to training and mentoring employees in-house.

Left out in the cold are smaller companies with fewer resources. The absence of support could have supply chain consequences that ripple out to impact larger companies.

In recognition that the apprenticeship issue needs to be addressed universally, the leading companies Alcoa, Dow and Siemens partnered with the Manufacturing Institute (an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers) to produce a step-by-step manual titled, "Employers' Playbook for Building an Apprenticeship Program."

The Playbook makes a strong case for building partnerships with community colleges,  mirroring Scotland's approach:

...While private employers are ideally equipped to define the skills they need to succeed, they cannot go it alone. Therefore, the apprenticeship model, which brings together community colleges and employers, is rapidly taking hold as a viable training approach that can quickly and effectively build the manufacturing workforce of the future.

Alcoa, The Dow Chemical Company, and Siemens Corporation – all active participants in the Obama Administration’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) – have successfully established apprenticeships in their U.S-based facilities for years. And they have reaped the benefits of these programs, namely as a way to develop a highly skilled and qualified workforce that is certified, highly motivated and work-ready.

Last spring the Manufacturing Institute followed up by co-authoring a new proposal for coordinating employer workforce initiatives on a national level titled, “Quality Pathways: Employer Leadership in Earn and Learn Opportunities.”

Like the Playbook, the new proposal highlights the importance of government support, including the development of state and federal incentives for employers:

This situation will not fix itself, and employers cannot fix it alone. We need everyone—businesses, workers, government, and our nation’s education and training providers—working together to solve the challenges of our time.

The ambitious proposal is aimed specifically at the manufacturing sector, but its principles could be applied to other fields as well. In particular, there is a close emphasis on quality control for internships and apprenticeships.

Clearly there is a growing agreement among private sector stakeholders that apprenticeships and other public-private workforce development partnerships play a crucial role in a healthy economy.

So far federal policy makers are not on board with the emerging consensus, but it seems that U.S. businesses are laying the groundwork to lobby for a more aggressive approach.

Image (screenshot): via Manufacturing Institute.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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