Grit Daily

Can apprenticeships close America’s technical skills gap?”

Operator monitoring and assembling ABS parts at a Milacron Injection Molding machine at SEA-LECT Plastics Corporation.

When I was 16, I began an apprenticeship program to become a farmer. I had been on the job for 3 months when my boss came up to me and yelled, “I will give you $1,000 to quit!” He was furious because I was slacking off!

Although I was a city boy, I had spent a few summers on a farm, and I thought I knew everything. Well, I didn’t. My boss challenged me to shape up or ship out. So, I got my act together and stayed. The experience changed my life and the skills I learned gave me a solid foundation for all my future jobs.

You see, I did not go to college right after high school. I graduated at the end of 10th grade, at age of 16, because I grew up in Germany and had a choice. And I could choose between an academic route and an apprenticeship. I hated school. Having a choice prevented me from dropping out. I did go to college much later, at age 29. By then, my career path had changed. I had completed a second apprenticeship in marine hardware sales and wanted a college education; I was ready for it. By the way, my college learning greatly benefitted from my work experience.

Apprenticeships are considered the backbone of the middle class in many countries. But, here in the United States, their value is totally underestimated — even denigrated. We need to change the expectation and educational paradigm in America that college is the only career path promoted to our young people. I am not against college, rather an advocate for additional pathways to inspire student learning and close to the widening skills gap. There are many high paying, high skilled careers that require a specialized industry certification, not a college degree.

I regard apprenticeship education as the solution to several problems in our schools, in business, and in our economy. We need to get kids engaged in hands-on learning in their areas of interest. And, we must engage them where we have the need. Our youth needs education that matches up with what is happening out in the real world. Apprenticeships offer tremendous opportunities, and not just in manufacturing.

Our current workforce includes highly skilled workers who offer valuable knowledge and skills acquired through years of experience. We must utilize our seasoned employees to mentor apprentices and pass on that knowledge to the next generation before it is lost. I run a plastic injection molding company in Everett, Wash. We have 30 employees manufacturing a variety of plastic parts. My employees have extremely valuable skills and are very hard to replace. None of them needs a college degree.

Our schools can prepare our students for apprenticeships. Middle and high schools need to provide career and technical education — also known as “CTE” — that allows students to study careers in industry and business, sparks their curiosity, connects them with industry professionals, and provides them with hands-on learning. I also consider CTE as a dropout prevention program because students can discover their interests and apply them in a real-world application. They also discover careers they find challenging and satisfying and maybe down the road the need for further degrees and credentials.

Today I have a total of seven apprentices. Three mold maker apprentices, three plastics process technician apprentices and one 17-year-old youth apprentice. These apprentices came to us with a variety of valuable skills and knowledge they received from their highly regarded CTE teachers. Our apprentices are insuring our company’s future.

The German K12 education system is quite different from the American system and I am not suggesting that we copy it, rather emulate a system that gives students the choice between the professional route and the academic route. American schools can evolve by adding career and technical education classes and giving them the credit equivalencies needed to graduate.

We have smart kids in our schools. Some are just like I was, bored and unmotivated. Forcing our students in a direction which is of no interest to them kills their motivation, their passion and delays their pathway to success.

We can offer them excellent careers by emphasizing on CTE and apprenticeship programs that fuels their passion. We can close the skills gap and support our economy.

Apprenticeships could become the backbone of the middle class in America.

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