Last week President Trump took aim at expanding apprenticeship programs for the manual trades, which has been applauded by the Business Roundtable, consisting of major employers. It’s about time apprenticeship has gotten a boost!
Apprenticeship is a training system that dates back more than 500 years when European guilds were formed to pass along knowledge of key manual skills to craftsmen of the era. Various forms of apprenticeship programs have arisen in the U.S. for the construction trades, manufacturing and other economic sectors, although interest in these programs has lagged in recent times with so much emphasis placed on going to college.
Among the most effective apprenticeship programs for the construction trades have been run by a partnership between trade unions and their employers. These programs turn out superb craft workers, though admission is limited and tightly controlled by the join apprenticeship committees that run the programs. These committees don’t want to turn out more skilled craft workers than they can find jobs for, so when construction work hit the skids in 2008 and for years afterward the number of apprentices being trained was low by historical standards.
Even though the market has picked up again, apprenticeship training takes time. Most union programs take 3-5 years to complete. Besides, in most U.S. markets, construction done by union firms has fallen to a very low level. Only 13.9% of the construction labor force belonged to a union last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Other apprenticeship programs exist in the nonunion sector, some jointly run by businesses in a particular industry and others by private employers. Overall there are an estimated 8,000 apprenticeship programs sanctioned by the U.S. Bureau of Apprenticeship Training, almost half of which are tied to the construction industry. Some employers have in-house programs for apprentice training, although in many cases they are not officially sanctioned by BAT. These programs generally lead to employment with the particular employer, who in some cases may require training costs to be paid back if a worker leaves within a short period of time.
Whether official or unofficial, apprenticeship has not come close to filling the increasing need for skilled workers. Last year there were more than 505,000 apprentices in training, the highest level since 2001, but not much higher than the previous peak in 2003. Compare that with more than 13.3 million students enrolled in colleges and universities, and millions more in junior colleges.
This data shows that the manual trades have gotten short shrift over the years. Now, with college costs rising, educational standards dropping, and a shortage of skilled trade workers, the imbalance is just beginning to get rectified.
It’s unclear how much the government’s initiatives will boost apprenticeship training, but it’s heartening that the message is starting to take hold that we need well-trained plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians much more than we need people with degrees in law, sociology and gender studies.