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Executive order could elevate construction apprenticeship

Kyle Schwarm is the marketing and communications director at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

Kyle Schwarm is the marketing and communications director at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

Shortages of skilled labor are arguably the biggest issue facing the construction industry today.

There is no one quick remedy to this situation, which is affecting the way contractors do business. Unfortunately, the industry’s difficulties are not going away any time soon.

You’ve heard much of this before. There are more than a half million unfilled construction jobs in the U.S. today. By 2020, millennials will make up half of the workforce, but most will have little to no experience or interest in the construction industry.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of college graduates are finding themselves unemployed and underemployed upon graduation, without profitable or marketable abilities, especially if their college majors ended in a “y,” such as psychology and anthropology. These generations of individuals have been advised by parents, teachers and counselors that there is only one way to win in life, and it doesn’t include the trades.

President Trump’s Executive Order to shift another $200 million in existing job training money to expand apprenticeship programs offers hope. The executive order gives third parties – companies, trade associations, unions and others – more flexibility to design apprenticeship programs with less interference from government regulators.

“We have regulations on top of regulations,” President Trump said. “We’re empowering companies, unions, industry groups and federal agencies to go out and create new opportunities for millions of citizens.”

The order also calls on businesses to increase their apprenticeship offerings. Naturally, there are fears this executive order might exclude construction, which is known for having already established apprenticeship programs. That would be a mistake, given the huge need for skilled workers in construction and how construction is already known for investing in training. Much of what happens with construction will depend on Secretary Alexander Acosta and his team.

But regardless of whether the industry is included, there are a couple of reasons why the initiative is likely to still be beneficial. First, apprenticeships are getting badly needed attention on a national stage. Second, any expansion of apprenticeships into other industries will elevate the perceived value of all apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships, which have been around longer than any of us, have fallen out of favor among Americans as an entry point to a career. While apprenticeships are an invaluable training model, they carry a negative connotation for many Americans. Without having been directly exposed to apprenticeships, most people don’t open their minds to them. In many cases, apprenticeships have been relegated to being a way to a “less-than” career.

Although apprenticeships may be a tough sell today, expanding them to other industries, such as tax accounting or cybersecurity, could help them to be perceived in a better light. Countries like Germany and Switzerland don’t attach stigmas to apprenticeships. These programs garner more respect in these countries because they are employer-driven and prevalent in many different industries.

Industries in the U.S., in contrast, tend to provide relatively little training and, instead, rely solely on the government for training and expect employees to come through the door job-ready. In Germany, employers invest heavily in on-the-job training; many even have their own training centers. In the U.S., companies are not comfortable moving toward the experiential-learning system. One reason for this is cost: Companies won’t latch onto this system because they are too often looking at their prospects for immediate returns. In Germany, companies tend to consider the promise of long-term gains, not only for themselves but also society as a whole.

In the U.S., fewer than five percent of our youth are trained in apprenticeships. Of the programs that are offered, most are in construction.

In Germany, the number is closer to 60 percent. Granted, Germany’s dual education model allows children to learn a vocation beginning at an early age. But employers don’t rely solely on government to provide training. Their apprenticeship programs are highly sought after.

In the U.S., apprenticeships are widely misunderstood. This has led to an infrequent use of them. That’s a shame, considering how long they have been part of our workforce-training endeavors.

The president’s executive order is now offering us hope. The more apprenticeships are used by other industries, the more they will come to be accepted as a great way to win in life, regardless of the industry.

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