Tanissa Dorsey of Ellicott City, left, and Ryan Murphy of Hanover,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
To train the workforce of the future, Maryland is hoping to sell high-tech employers and companies in other growth industries on a millennia-old solution.
Such on-the-job training was once the dominant method of producing skilled workers — from artisans to attorneys to physicians. But its role in the United States shrank as industrialization revolutionized work and the importance of universities grew.
Formal apprenticeships — in which entry-level employees work full-time in the field while attending classes on the side — are now overwhelmingly the domain of construction and a few manufacturing trades. But the state labor department, which oversees apprenticeship programs, thinks the time is right for other industries to give the approach a try.
The agency is hoping to see new programs in areas such as health care, information technology and defense contracting. State officials are bringing companies and trainers together at summits in Towson and Germantown next month to talk about apprenticeship for the 21st century.
"We see that as a great model to resurrect and reintroduce to the business community," said Jeff Beeson, director of the apprenticeship and training program at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. "The term 'apprenticeship' may be a bit dated, but the way we're going to apply it in Maryland is absolutely new, absolutely innovative."
Construction contractors think the model works well. While apprentices don't start out as skilled as fully trained employees, they are cheaper and learn quickly. A few years down the road, they'll have credentials as well as an intimate understanding of what their employer needs — and perhaps some fuzzy feelings of loyalty to boot.
"We're investing in them, and they're investing in us," said Jean Maisel, office manager at JDL Electric, an electrical contractor just outside Baltimore that has two apprentices and two more who just graduated.
The state's initiative comes as workers seem primed for an alternative to the well-trod path of going to college first and starting a career afterward. The cost of a four-year degree is three times more expensive today than it was a generation ago, leaving many with big debts when they finish college — and no job guarantees. More than half the Americans polled by the Pew Research Center this spring said the higher education system does not provide good value for the money.
But business leaders need to be sold on the apprenticeship idea first. Advocates have tried for years to expand the model into new fields nationally, but it hasn't always been a snap to persuade employers who need workers with specialized skills that they should hire people out of high school — and perhaps pick up the tab for their training, too.
"I don't think it's going to be hard to get students interested in these programs because it's a win-win for them," said Marlene Y. Lieb, associate vice president for continuing education and training at Harford Community College and an enthusiastic supporter of the model. "I think our challenge is finding incentives to get employers to buy into this because … they still think of apprenticeship in the line of construction trades."
Advocates are hopeful that momentum is on their side. Some states are getting results by aggressively marketing the idea — South Carolina offers funding to businesses starting apprenticeship programs and tax credits to those who employ apprentices. The U.S. Department of Labor now issues workforce training grants that encourage apprenticeship. And community colleges, which provide some of the nation's construction apprenticeship training, are interested in doing more.
When the Department of Labor held a conference call about the idea of expanding apprenticeship recently, 50 community college presidents dialed in.
"People are looking for what other models out there work that can help improve all Americans' opportunities for postsecondary success," said John Ladd, administrator of the Labor Department's apprenticeship office.
Nearly 3,200 employers in Maryland are participating in "registered" apprenticeship programs approved by the government. Many are trainee electricians, plumbers and carpenters.
The housing bust and recession shrank the construction industry, and so, too, the number of apprentices. Maryland has just over 8,500 apprentices, down 12 percent from 2008 — but that's a much smaller drop than the loss of all construction jobs.