Apprentices Value Hands-On Work-Based Learning

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek December 7, 2016
Apprentices Value Hands-On Work-Based Learning

Selena Elekovic, a high school senior in Colorado, assembles machinery at Mikron Technology Inc., where she also sets up the machinery's alignment and timing for the Swiss manufacturer's facility in Denver.

Elekovic is in the first year of a four-year apprenticeship program to become a mechanical engineer. She splits her time between school—where she takes five classes daily—and Mikron, where she works 12 hours every week.

"I get to essentially program the machine to do the job," Elekovic said proudly at an event to observe National Apprenticeship Week at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C., in November. The U.S. wants to learn best practices for apprenticeships from Switzerland and in 2015 signed a Joint Declaration of Intent to collaborate on creating a government program based on the Swiss model that covers many occupations, as SHRM Online reported in July 2015.

Elekovic's family moved to the U.S. from Serbia two years ago. She sees the apprenticeship as her pathway to fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming a mechanical engineer and "seeing machines come to life."

Hands-on applied learning through the "earn while you learn" apprenticeship model is a great way to provide teens and young adults early work experience and allows employers to train workers in the skills their organizations seek, said Nancy Hoffman, Ph.D., vice president and senior advisor at Jobs for the Future in Newton Center, Mass., who spoke at the event.

Hoffman also serves as senior advisor and co-founder of Pathways to Prosperity Network (PPN). Jobs for the Future and the Harvard Graduate School of Education launched PPN in 2012, in partnership with nine states and three regions, to bring educators and employers together to prepare young people for employment success.

In the U.S., apprenticeships are thought to be limited to the building trades or are seen as an alternative for students who don't go to college. However, the Obama administration has focused a lot of attention and millions of dollars in grants to encourage apprenticeships across industries as a way to fill the work skills gap that U.S. employers face.

The U.S. has created more than 125,000 new apprenticeships since 2014, wrote Labor Secretary Thomas Perez in a blog post. The push for apprenticeships is extending to high-tech industries such as health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing over the next five years.

Dane Lyons, for example, is a first-year apprentice at insurance firm Zurich North America in Schaumburg, Ill. Lyons served in the U.S. Navy, worked in retail and sold cars, but the married father of two sons wanted to go back to school. He now attends class two days a week and is an apprentice for eight hours, three days a week.

The program allows him to grow his skills and still have time for his family, he told the panel. While he took a cut in pay to pursue the apprenticeship, Lyons said it will be worth it for the "bright future" he anticipates.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Using Government and Other Resources for Employment and Training Programs]

An Apprentice Speaks Up

"Kids my age didn't have a clue what an apprenticeship was," said Marc Guillet, 21, one of four panelists at the embassy event. He was aware of apprenticeships because of his older brother's involvement in one.

Guillet is in the last year of a three-year apprenticeship at the Buhler Apprenticeship Academy in Plymouth, Minn., where he began his training immediately after graduating from high school. Buhler Industries Inc. employs up to 5,000 workers and produces tractors, front-end loaders, grain-handling and other farm equipment.

Guillet attends classes four days a week at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis and is in apprenticeship workshops in Plymouth for 32 hours per week. His apprenticeship includes on-the-job training at customer sites and mentoring from older workers. The company provides study time and pays for Guillet's classes, tools, books, computer and uniforms; he also receives compensation and benefits as a full-time employee.

When he finishes the program, he will be a certified customer service engineer/industrialist specialist for machine and process technology.

Guillet said that he had explained the apprenticeship concept to friends who attend a traditional four-year college and, once they understood that he is getting a free education and a job at Buhler, some wish they had followed a similar path.

He told event attendees to spread the word about apprenticeships and advised employers to visit middle schools and high schools to talk about their programs.

He and fellow panelists, such as Elekovic, often speak to groups about apprenticeships.

"It'd surprise you how many eighth-graders are [already] thinking about their careers," he said.

'You Have to Build Partnerships'

Panelist Daniel Roth, apprentice instructor at Buhler, noted that the company tailored the program "for the skills we actually need," such as mechanical and electrical knowledge.

"You can learn so much" through an apprenticeship, including soft skills, "and that is knowledge that is not written down," said Roth, who is also a graduate of Buhler's apprenticeship program.

Employers have to get involved in creating apprenticeships, said James Wall, executive director at the National Institute for Metalworking Skills in Washington, D.C., who spoke at the event before it was opened to the panelists. Business owners are in for a surprise if they think job candidates will just show up with the skills they need, he pointed out.

"You have to build partnerships" with businesses and educational institutions, he said.

He noted the many successful programs that can serve as a model for employers. The DOL's Office of Apprenticeship offers a Quick Start Toolkit for creating an apprenticeship program.

Hoffman noted the following characteristics of a strong apprenticeship program:

  • Provide permeable options that allow students to choose a career pathway, change industries and move on to specialized certifications or higher education.

  • Prepare apprentices for modern occupations that have application to real-world problems.

  • Develop science, technology, engineering and math competencies and complex problem-solving, teamwork, communication and presentation skills.

  • Respond to the needs of adolescent development.

"Sixteen-year-olds can be given a lot of responsibility," Hoffman said. "I think we really undersell teenagers in this country. They can function very well in a grown-up setting." 

Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the Council for Global Immigration, an affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), also attended the event.

"Employers and governments around the globe are looking for ways to give young people and the unemployed the skills needed in today's workplaces," and SHRM is happy to share these ideas with the HR community, she said. 

"Apprenticeships are an old tool that is being successfully reinvented in a variety of industries and occupations."


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