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Bringing Back the Art of Apprenticeship and Lifelong Learning

With an ever-increasing demand for skilled labor in America, to the tune of 7 million open jobs, it is evident we lack the talent supply to meet current hiring needs across most sectors.

With an ever-increasing demand for skilled labor in America, to the tune of 7 million open jobs, it is evident we lack the talent supply to meet current hiring needs across most sectors. In fact, I have spent the past 25 years working in the employment industry and I cannot recall a time when there has been higher demand for skilled labor at all levels and in all industries. With only 62.9 percent of people participating in the workforce today, employers will likely fall short of meeting their labor needs.

Isn’t it about time we reverse that trend? I think so. Collectively, businesses, academia and local, state and federal governments all need to find ways to encourage and engage the able workforce to participate in learning new skills, find ways to remain relevant in today’s workplace and improve their work and personal lives. Employers, in particular, must begin to play a greater role in solving the talent crisis. Not only do we stand to gain (or lose) in solving this challenge, but we are well positioned to provide more education and on-the-job training to our current workforces.

How Did We Get Here?

Over the past few decades, our country rapidly grew into a service-based economy and most young adults are now encouraged to pursue a college education, especially in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. There’s a general recognition that the push toward “college for all” may have contributed to a shortage of young people being exposed or encouraged to consider trades. Even though STEM jobs continue to grow, they are not for everyone. There needs to be a change in the perception of skilled trade careers and a renewed focus on preparing workers for these vital yet underappreciated roles.  

NPR recently reported that good jobs in the skilled trades are plentiful however, students are almost universally being steered toward bachelor’s degrees. As a result, 76 percent of construction companies nationwide are having trouble finding qualified workers. The same crisis can be found in other sectors, such as manufacturing and infrastructure-related fields.

Learning From the Past, so we can Prepare for the Future

The impending need to upskill and reskill American workers is a bipartisan issue. Regardless of what side of the aisle you may sit on, you can’t ignore the more than 40-year low in labor participation today. So, the question becomes, how do we solve it? In the past several years there has been a greater appetite for bringing back robust apprenticeship programs and work-based learning. This expanding discussion about apprenticeships in America is a key part of re-energizing people about trade education and employment. Central to this discussion is remembering and learning from the deeply rooted history of apprenticeship programs in our country.

I am particularly passionate about apprenticeships because I believe there is something special about learning a specific skill or trade from experienced craftsmen, artists and teachers. I have heard about this gift my whole life from my own grandfather and father, whose lives were greatly influenced by apprenticeships.

My grandfather, Joseph Bily, who migrated to New York from Czechoslovakia, joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3 in his early 20s learning his craft under skilled electricians. He pursued a career as an electrician because of an interest in electronics and hobby for building radios. He had a zest for the business and built a successful career that allowed him to thrive despite the Great Depression. Because he had a skilled trade, he was able to find work with the IBEW Local 1 in St. Louis, MO when the market dried up in New York. Eventually, he found his way back to his hometown, leaving his fingerprints all over New York from the midtown tunnel to the New York airports and his favorite – Radio City Music Hall.

Following in his footsteps, my father, Charles J. Bily, spent his summer breaks from college working as a junior apprentice in IBEW Local 3. After deciding college wasn’t right for him, he spent the next five years apprenticing before launching his career as an electrician.

My father often describes his time as an apprentice, which combined both classroom and on-the-job training, as an incredible opportunity to learn.  He worked under senior electricians who would guide, teach and mentor him as he learned the trade. He worked five days a week and attended classes two nights a week. Each year had a specific learning theme, and the coursework would also keep students up to date on the changes to the electrical code. Ultimately, the program provided him with focused learning opportunities on everything from math, geometry, and formulas to broader thinking, logic and reasoning.

Over the years, he worked on memorable projects, including the TV antenna of the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building, where he would climb up at night to update the signals. To me, my dad was a superhero, lighting up New York City and climbing the tallest buildings in the world.

Now retired, my father is thrilled to see the current focus on increasing apprenticeships and bringing back manufacturing and construction jobs to America. I asked my father if he was glad he went through the apprenticeship program and became an electrician. Without hesitation, he responded, “Absolutely. I am very glad I chose this path and I have no regrets and I still find it interesting. I never lost interest and never stopped learning.” When I asked him about the apprentice programs of today he stated, “I believe they are the stepping stones to higher careers and can be applied to almost every profession.” He added, “It is great to see women welcome in the trades today since they play an important role in the workforce.”

Concerns like limiting college debt and finding fulfilling work are increasingly central to today’s career decisions. In that context, it is hard to ignore skilled trades that offer the opportunity to get paid for learning and to become part of a proud tradition of craftmanship.

Rebuilding the Skilled Trades Pipeline

I can’t help but be encouraged as we see more attention being placed on the value of apprenticeships. In fact, the government has declared November 12-18 as National Apprenticeship Week, a time when employers are asked to promote their education and training opportunities. There are thousands of events, job fairs and open houses planned across the country to celebrate apprenticeship programs. It applauds employers who recognize that if they need a skilled workforce, they need to invest in it.

I am proud that my company, EmployBridge, has invested in offering free online learning for our nearly 400,000 temporary associates through our award-winning Better WorkLife Academy. EmployBridge recognized the need to focus on upskilling American workers and to do our part in elevating and educating the hourly workforce for the jobs of tomorrow. I want to encourage all employers to start thinking about what they can do to bring back the art of learning in their workplace.

Lastly, I have some simple advice for workers. Invest in yourself. Learn. Give yourself the gift of training so you can make a living for yourself and provide for your loved ones. As my grandfather and father both said, “You never stop learning and no one can take that away from you.”

Joanie Courtney is president, Professional Division and Chief Marketing Officer at EmployBridge.

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