Apprenticeship Programs Need More Students

Back Commentary May 24, 2018 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

I presume that most of you, like me, take technology for granted. When I push a button, I expect it to work. I don’t need to know how it works. I just trust that when, for example, I push a button on the intercom in our office, there will be a voice answering me on the other end.

But it’s obvious that we need people who know how an office intercom works — or the more elaborate versions of these systems, such as those that connect patients with nursing stations in hospitals. I’m not talking about the computer engineers and software developers who design them. Certainly, high-tech is a growing and welcomed segment of our regional economy in fields that range from software development to biotech. And we welcome high-tech companies that want to locate here.

But for as much as we need scientists and engineers to create technology, we also need more people who wear tool belts. In some cases, we need them to make high-tech products work. A worker who installs the wiring for advanced intercom systems, such as those that connect a hospital patient to a nurse calling station, is a low voltage electrician. The need for that specialty is increasing, especially with the expansion of medical facilities in the Capital Region. Yet, I’ve recently learned that an apprenticeship program to train low voltage electricians is having a hard time finding people to enroll.

It’s not the only craft in our region that is short of workers. Nearly all of the construction trades are looking to refill their ranks that were depleted by both recession and retirements in recent years, just as the economy is looking to rebound. A recent survey by the State Building and Construction of California Trades Council showed, for example, that we need as many as 7,000 more carpenters than are available to fill the demand for housing. The study documented the “jobs gap” in dozens of other crafts, ranging from plumbers and tile setters to concrete finishers and sheet metal workers.

During the rise of the knowledge economy, schools emphasized college prep curriculums over vocational studies that teach hands-on skills. But college is not for everyone and apprenticeships offer a path to a professional career. In an era of record levels of student debt, apprenticeships are a way to learn a trade over four or five years while earning a wage instead of paying tuition.

Apprenticeships are open to anyone over the age of 18 with a high school education, and they are not only for the young. At a time when many people are looking for mid-career changes, apprenticeship programs are enrolling middle-aged people looking for a second career.

The recession of 2008 was brutal on the construction trades. As jobs dried up, many people had to find other types of work. Others, their bodies worn from decades of physical work, simply retired. Some have come back to the industry to finish out the years they need to earn retirement. As a result, the average age of local construction workers today is 50.

That leaves an opportunity for a new generation of skilled craftsmen to fill in behind them. And at a time when there is so much talk of wage inequality, apprenticeships lead to salaries that are closer to middle class and a step above those in our service economy.  

Construction of the Golden 1 Center launched a comeback for the construction trades and renewed interest in apprenticeships. As our economy continues to improve, we need to maintain that momentum. We need schools that respect and promote the value of hands-on skills. We need mentors in the business world to recruit apprenticeship candidates.

As a businesswoman and entrepreneur, I’ve always valued the equal opportunity we give people to pull themselves up “by their bootstraps.” A tool belt and work boots can do that, too.