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Innovation Changes the Game for Apprenticeships

Montez King
By Montez King Executive Director, National Institute for Metalworking Skills

A question I ask an employer when I’m being toured around a manufacturing company is, “What makes this department thrive?” It’s a hopeful, positive question that initially lights the eyes. Sometimes that light dims almost instantaneously as the question can reveal ways in which the department is not performing up to its potential. The kernel for improvement is often training.

It’s an honor to assist companies in identifying where they need skills improvement and also participating in the subsequent steps of formulating a customized plan for their actual workpieces, validating the experience, and perhaps even credentialing that competency to an industry standard. And therein lies the frustration and the challenge: the current Registered Apprenticeship Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, is a strict occupational view of the workforce that no longer exists in many industries. As such, the program must change. Now.

One of the greatest barriers to working with the current 1930s-era Registered Apprenticeship model (yes, 80 years old) is that it’s tied to specific occupations. Focusing only on occupations, rather than competencies, limits access and is out of date. Employers need workers who are cross-trained, flexible, and adapt to changing technology and workforce needs. They need employees who can obtain competencies and skills that cross over to other job roles, are able to advance faster, and can provide more value to the company. In a program in which all of the competencies a shop needs are identified, one program could benefit multiple roles and functions.

To be clear, I’m not referring to the conventional competency-based training programs that have been around for the last decade or so, as those aren’t ideal for 21st-century manufacturing needs either. To help clarify the new apprenticeable competency model, consider this scenario: There’s an apprenticeship for a CNC operator. The traditional program identifies the skills needed, assigns hourly training requirements and hires a select number of apprentices who must complete 2,000 hours of OJT (on-the-job training) and 144 hours of RTI (relevant technical instruction). Other than the trainers and apprentices, no other employees are given access to the training.

A Better Model

A better model would identify the competencies needed in the machine shop to improve performance, establish a training schedule, and open the program to any employee who needs the skill. For example, the competencies might be assembly, CNC mill operation, CNC lathe operation, and deburring, and any employee could interact with this program. An employee hired as a CNC Operator Apprentice could have one year to obtain all four competencies but would also be allowed to progress at his or her own pace, perhaps in half the time.

Another employee in the job role of assembly worker could access training for deburring to expand their value and flexibility in the workplace. An estimator might access the assembly training module to gain a better understanding of how that process works, resulting in more accurate quoting.

Other barriers to the current Registered Apprenticeship Program include outdated legal requirements, old time-based training requirements for OJT and RTI and how those two aspects are structured, the outmoded role of the journeyman, and bureaucratic inconsistency.

Apprenticeship in its basic form is a proven on-the-job training model that could, and should, be used more in upskilling the American workforce. The challenges outlined are roadblocks to developing training programs, yet they also serve as starting points to reform the current model. We at NIMS ask you to join us on this mission.

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