I am beginning to wonder if it isn’t time to rethink how this industry trains its tradesmen. The current apprenticeship system doesn’t seem to be working very well.
Contractors tell me they can’t afford to hire apprentices. The days of having two guys on a service truck – typically a journeyman and apprentice – seems to have largely disappeared. The industry laments that it can’t attract young people, but college instructors tell me their pre-apprenticeship programs are full, but many of those young people can’t get jobs.
The concept behind apprenticeship has always been good – that an apprentice works alongside a journeyman to learn the trade, with a period of school every year to learn the theory along with aspects of the trade that his employer is not involved in. In theory an apprentice gets a broad-based trade education through a combination of practical experience and school. Of course, depending on the employer, the apprentice can also spend four years threading pipe! And apprentices get sent home if there’s no work. When that happens, if they are industrious at all, they start looking for steady employment, resulting in a pretty poor completion rate for apprenticeships in this country.
The reality is that apprenticeship is not working well. Not only are many contractors unable or unwilling to hire apprentices, but there are significant differences from one company to the next in how apprentices are treated.
Union companies follow standard procedures that dictate when a person is signed up as an apprentice. In a non-union company, a young person may work for several years before being signed on
Apprenticeship often doesn’t work well for small companies. The original idea was that a person would apprentice with a company and stay with that company. But better money often lures them elsewhere once they have their ticket. It doesn’t make much sense for a contractor to spend time and money training apprentices and then not receiving the benefit of that effort once the person has their license.
For all these reasons, I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t make sense to reverse the school versus practical concept and have apprentices do three or four years in school with a six-week or so co-op placement with a contractor every year.
The trades would become a college program like any other and the students would graduate with their journeyman papers.
I suspect this would lead to better quality training in all facets of the industry, but most importantly it would make the individuals immediately employable once they finish school. It would also open up the trades to anyone because having family or friends in the business would become much less of a factor in hiring.
The traditional apprenticeship system is entrenched in our industry and it’s not going to be easy to change. There’s no substitute for practical experience in the field. But if it is becoming too difficult to make apprenticeship work for contractors and would-be tradesmen alike, perhaps it’s time to find an alternate path to a journeyman ticket.