Reviving the Lost 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. 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% of people participating in the workforce today, employers will likely fall short of meeting their labor needs.

I think it’s time we reverse that trend. 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. 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% 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

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.

Charles J. Bily during construction of the World Trade Center.

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.

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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 and its specialty workforce divisions are the first staffing organization in history to recently be approved by the Department of Labor to pilot an Apprenticeship Program that will provide our associates new opportunity to learn higher-paying skills and help close the skills gap for companies. Our program will be a national model and focuses on Advanced Manufacturing, including logistics and traffic handling and forklift operations.

Additionally, 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.”

5 Tips for Employers to Create a Culture of Learning

1. Offer online learning courses to your employees at no cost. Give your employees the time and a quiet space to learn during the workday.

2. Create an apprenticeship program to teach new employees the business. It can be a combination of classwork, on-the-job training, online research, and learning. It could also be designed as a mentorship program. Team-up your baby boomers with millennials for on-the-job training. You can make the training reciprocal since each generation has unique skills to teach the other.

3. Offer a tuition reimbursement program. Demonstrate your commitment to ongoing learning for your employees. Not only will it improve workers’ skills but it will also help drive employee retention, which is important in this tight market.

4. Partner with a trade school or learning institution to bring new students into your organization for on-the-job training as interns. This could be a great source of future workers.

5. Most importantly, create a culture of learning and celebrate individual successes along the way.

Joanie Courtney

Joanie Courtney
Joanie Courtney is chief marketing officer of Employbridge and president of its professional division.

Joanie Courtney

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