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Building careers through apprenticeships

In today’s work environment, a college degree is emphasized as a key requirement for career success. At the same time, public concerns about the affordability of college and the financial burden of college debt are at an all-time high. Tuition increases at public colleges and universities have exceeded growth in household income and the Consumer Price Index since 1980.

A 2013 survey by the global management consulting firm Accenture found that 42 percent of college graduates are working part time or intermittently. One-third are $30,000 in debt, and 17 percent owe up to $50,000. Only half of those who find full-time work are employed in their field of study.

In the quest for practical post-secondary education alternatives, apprenticeship programs are getting a fresh look as a cost-effective way to provide job training and prepare workers for a skilled career.

The U.S. Department of Labor counts more than 250 occupations with registered apprentices and apprenticeship programs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that apprenticeship is the typical entry path for 15 occupations, including skilled construction trades such as electricians, sheet metal workers, plumbers and pipefitters. Occupations with growing employment opportunities such as health care and information technology also offer apprenticeship programs.

Most local formal programs, such as the Associated Builders and Contractors of San Diego’s Apprenticeship Training Trust, are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor and are governed by the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards.

Participating employers pay wages during the on-the-job training that start at about half the rate of a fully skilled employee. Wages increase as the apprentice gains training and experience, and medical insurance is typically a part of the wage package.

In addition to on-the-job training, apprentices are required to attend classes in theory and technical instruction in their field. They also learn communication skills, problem solving, resource allocation and logistics, customer service, and collaborating in diverse workplace teams.

For most programs, apprentices must complete 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and 144 hours of classroom instruction each year. ABC San Diego’s apprentices typically complete their training in four to five years. Their courses earn community college credit which can lead to an associate’s degree.

San Diego’s ABC apprentices who successfully finish training receive a certificate of completion from both the U.S. Department of Labor and the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards, which is recognized by employers in their career field across the country. These skilled craft workers who have completed an apprenticeship program earn high wages without carrying a crushing load of college debt.

There were more than 358,000 registered apprentices in 21,000 apprenticeship programs in 2012, according to the Labor Department. Compare this number to the 21 million students enrolled in post-secondary degree-granting institutions including community colleges, public and private universities.

In several western European nations, apprenticeship training is far more prevalent. Apprenticeships provide training for up to 70 percent of the workforce in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Germany’s system is credited with the nation’s strength in maintaining a high quality-manufacturing sector. Apprenticeship programs are expanding quickly in Ireland, Australia and Great Britain.

But in the United States, the focus remains on a traditional college degree. The federal government provides nearly $4 billion annually in support to college education programs. The ongoing budget to support and monitor the apprenticeship system nationwide is just $28 million annually.

Expanding federal and state tax credits for hiring and training apprentices, and increasing funding for state level apprenticeship programs would go a long way to opening up career-training opportunities that would grow businesses, jobs and the economy as a whole.

Some 7 percent of our military veterans are in registered apprenticeship programs. Expanding training opportunities for veterans would address two workforce and education challenges at once.

Apprentices must demonstrate mastery of complex material and skills, and dedicate themselves to a rigorous training program with near-perfect attendance while working a full-time job. There is no group prouder of their accomplishments at graduation than the men and women who complete their training at the ABC San Diego Apprenticeship Training Academy. They gain not only a career, but also the confidence to set goals and work toward them with professional and personal satisfaction.

Smyth is chief financial officer of Sherwood Mechanical and chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego Apprenticeship Training Trust board of trustees. For more information visit www.abcsd.org

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