Apprenticeships are good for businesses and employees
By Melissa Boles, Program Manager

When I graduated from high school in 2006, I didn’t even know what an apprenticeship was. I had been told I would be going to college for as long as I could remember, so that’s what I did. Over the next five years, even as I struggled to determine a major and occasionally pass some of my classes, there was no question that I would finish my degree.

I did, in 2011. A year later, I enrolled in a master’s program in Education. What I thought was a desire to work at a college or university led to a degree in 2014, two years as an academic advisor, and ultimately an understanding that what I really wanted was to help others avoid the mistakes I made. While I have no regrets about the degrees I earned (we can talk about student loan debt at a different time), there are moments where I wish someone had presented me with a different option.

It’s National Apprenticeship Week this week. According to the Foundation for Economic Education, apprenticeship in one form or another has been prevalent since Antiquity and was viewed as common practice by philosophers like Plato and Xenophon. Apprenticeship has grown and changed over the last century and would likely not be recognizable to someone like Plato. That could even be true for someone looking at the differences in apprenticeship from the early 1920s to now. The first state-registered apprenticeship system started in 1911, according to the Department of Labor, and the National Apprenticeship Act (also referred to as the Fitzgerald Act) was passed by Congress in 1937.

For more than 80 years, Registered Apprenticeship has held a place in the United States and worldwide. But has it always been prevalent? Most would say no. Even with the passage of the Fitzgerald Act in 1937, apprenticeships were already struggling to be the choice over college. When the Smith-Hughes Act was passed in 1917, it changed the face of education and yet, according to the Brookings Institute, did not change the desire from families for their children to attend Ivy League schools. Nor did it prevent college associations from advocating for four-year degrees to be the required introduction to careers in law, medicine, business, education, and several other occupations.

Despite repeated attempts by the federal government (and even state governments) to make apprenticeship and other forms of vocational education “sexy” again, we remain at the crossroads we seem to have been at for nearly a century. If college is what you need, what would be the point of vocational education?

In Workforce Development, we’re finally beginning to understand the complications vocational education runs into when it tries to compete with a four-year education. As supporters of whatever path is best for the individual and whatever path gets you to the career you want, no workforce development professional would tell anyone not to attend college. We do, however, want to see a bigger investment in other pathways to careers because we have seen the benefits.

In the three years I have worked in workforce development, I have heard more and more from business leaders and employers that they just need a person who can show up on time and they’ll train them. Ultimately what we need in the workforce are people who are interested in learning, regardless of what profession they’re in. That’s where apprenticeship comes in.

The earn-and-learn model of apprenticeship does several things for both the employer and the employee. When a business hires a new employee, the first thing they do is train them. If that new employee is lucky, they are trained with someone who did that job before them, but the likelihood of that person sticking by their side for longer than a few days is low. With an apprenticeship, not only is the new employee required to have a journey-level employee with them for an extended period, but the employer knows the new employee is continuously being trained well.

There are financial benefits, too. Employees who start in apprenticeship are paid at a family-sustaining wage to start, though it is usually 70-80% of the journey-level salary. This means that not only can employees support their family on the apprenticeship salary, but employers are saving money by not paying someone a journey-level salary who is still in training.

I could list the benefits of apprenticeship all day, but the fact of the matter is that it will be the best way to train and educate employees for some businesses and not for others. That’s okay. What we know in workforce development is that we need a well-rounded workforce in order to have a strong economy, and we’ll never get that if we don’t invest in apprenticeship.

Workforce Southwest Washington has been investing in apprenticeship for some time, but we’ve taken additional steps in the last year. Through grant funding from the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD), WSW invested in the development of a Building Trades Pre-Apprenticeship in Vancouver Public Schools, which was approved by the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council (WSATC) in April, and pre-apprenticeships in Manufacturing/Welding and Culinary, both of which are in development. WSW also assisted in bringing the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) down to Clark County to launch a youth apprenticeship program in Advanced Manufacturing in partnership with Vancouver Public Schools and Cascadia Technical Academy. There are already six youth apprentices who have begun their classes. Frontier Electric, which launched its apprenticeship program in September 2019, benefited from WSW’s support through this same funding to ensure they could enroll their first four apprentices.

This month, WSW will be launching our Apprenticeship Guide. The Guide, built using the aforementioned funding, was designed to be a central location where those interested in participating in an apprenticeship and those interested in hosting an apprenticeship can go for necessary information. You can see the apprenticeship guide by visiting https://workforcesw.org/apprenticeship-guide.

In the coming year, WSW will be investing in the growth and creation of several Career Launch programs, which will either be registered as apprenticeships or will operate in a similar earn-and-learn model, through additional funding provided by the Employment Security Department. Specifically, WSW will be working with Clark College, SEH America, and the High Tech Council on the expansion of SEH America’s Semi-Conductor & Electronics Manufacturing Tech Career Launch program, and will be partnering with the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative and several hospitals and clinics in the Vancouver Portland Metro Area to launch a Medical Assistant Apprenticeship.

The benefits of apprenticeship aren’t difficult to see if you’re looking. This National Apprenticeship Week, I hope you take a look at your training. How are you helping your employees prepare for their job with you? What does that look like long-term? Most importantly, even if you’ve never thought about it, even if you’re sure it can’t, could apprenticeship maybe be the right next thing for you? Whatever you decide, don’t hesitate to give WSW a call. We can help you make a decision for your business that will help you invest and employ people in this community long-term.

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