Apprenticeships aim to fill the skills gap

Two weeks ago, president Donald J. Trump signed an executive order doubling the amount of money the federal government spends on apprenticeship programs. At present, there are about a half-million apprenticeships in the country.

As attested to by his Celebrity Apprentice TV show testing business skills, Trump likes apprenticeships. Earlier this year Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff had urged the businessman-president to “take a moonshot goal at creating five million apprenticeships in the next five years.” No stranger to hyperbole, Trump had responded, “Let’s do that, let’s go for that five million.”

That wildly aspirational number, according to a Fortune article by Nicholas Wyman, would bring the U.S. to per-capita apprenticeship levels similar to those in Germany and Switzerland, the gold standard for programs that integrate classroom learning and on-the-job training. Trump’s initiative is his preferred solution to the perceived labor-force mismatch between available skills and industry needs. Other workforce development components seem to have less interest for him.

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Even in a rapidly changing economy, the basic problem doesn’t involve rocket science. Employers say they can’t fill jobs. Potential employees are unenthusiastic about or untrained for many jobs that are offered.

Economists differ as to the efficacy of putting so large a bet on apprenticeships. Some don’t see an unusually large skills gap. Some blame the gap on the aging of the workforce and the long-term decline in innovative start-ups. Others think the dilemma would be better addressed through deeper links between employers and education than rudimentary skills-building provides. The continued impacts of new technology and the spread of non-traditional work arrangements also must be taken into account.

“I don’t want to say the skills mismatch problem is irrelevant,” economist Gordon Hanson of the University of California San Diego told Noam Scheiber of The New York Times on June 15. “It certainly isn’t if you think about a 45-year-old man who loses a job in a traditional industry and needs to find a new job. But we do have abundant evidence that there are just fewer of those middle-skilled jobs available.”

New York State’s legislature this year increased funding for workforce development by $38 million to a total of $260 million, said state senator James Seward, who represents part of Ulster County. The Strategic Investment in Workforce Development program (Senate bill 6536 and Assembly bill 8107) was one of four bills passed by the legislature to help small business that were sent for signature to governor Andrew Cuomo. Supported by Seward, the legislation seeks to increase collaboration among the state labor, economic development and education departments and the SUNY and CUNY state colleges.

The broad program language promises the bill “would help fund classroom training, on-the-job training, curriculum development, and training materials associated with on-the-job training, skills upgrading, skills retraining, and basic skills training that leads to obtaining appropriate certifications or degrees from accredited institutions, among other uses.”

The upward bump in state funding — Seward said it wasn’t a pass-along of federal money — wasn’t a one-year change. “This will be an ongoing need,” said Seward. He expected more robust workforce development efforts to intensify as the economic landscape shifts.

“It’s a constantly shifting target,” he explained on Monday. The state is seeking improved collaboration among employers, employees and educators in regard to workforce training. As the programs unfold, Seward would like to see greater resources for local initiatives and an emphasis on direct work experience.

 

“I need apprenticeships for manufacturing,” said Frank Falatyn, president of Fala Technologies, a Town of Ulster firm specializing in state-of-the-art manufacturing and innovative engineering of advanced-technology products and services. Falatyn, long a leader in workforce efforts and former chair of the Ulster County Workforce Investment Board, has been working with the state Department of Labor and other partners in the Manufacturing Association of Central New York to develop a systematic and detailed apprenticeship program.

Some of the jobs in great demand require four years (8000 hours) of training. Falatyn shared the specifications of a training outline for apprenticeships for maintenance mechanics for automatic equipment. Required were 3000 hours of troubleshooting, 1150 hours of rigging and installing, 1000 hours each for basic and preventive maintenance, and so on. Falatyn assured me there were much more detailed lists for on-the-job or classroom training within every work process.

This pilot apprenticeship program will be rolled out in the Hudson Valley and in Rochester later this year. A local manufacturers’ conference will be scheduled for this fall or early winter to discuss the opportunity.

Only limited state money will be involved. Why would an employer spend four years training someone who might take their new skills across the street once they received certification? Falatyn suggested that the apprenticeship trainees would consist mainly of existing employees less likely to leave after training. But there are no guarantees.

There seems to be some measure of agreement at the national, state and local levels that expanded apprenticeship programs could be a more important tool in the workforce investment toolbox. A better-trained workforce is essential if the economy is to grow faster, and this was one way to achieve that goal.

Falatyn is an optimist. The nation, the state and the county were moving in the same direction. “The stars are aligning,” he said.

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