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Revitalize the American Apprenticeship Now

August 4, 2015
By Jim Steinle

I know first-hand how life-changing an apprenticeship can be. That’s why I believe one of the best routes to the American Dream is in serious need of a public opinion overhaul.

In my view, apprenticeships are perhaps the most misunderstood and under-appreciated education and career image of apprentice statpathway out there.

Forget outdated notions of “shop class.” Plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, auto-mechanics, pipe-fitters, carpenters, chefs, construction workers, truck drivers and dental assistants are just some of the fields that offer apprenticeship programs.

These jobs pay well – up to six figures in some cases – and can’t be outsourced to other countries. They provide economic stability and security in a highly competitive economy. And they can bring a lot of job satisfaction, as well.

College is a great option – for some youth. But fewer than half of all students who embark on a college degree ever complete their studies. We do our children a grave disservice if we don’t let them know that there are other ways to earn a good living and have a satisfying career.

That’s why I spoke about the urgent need to revitalize the American apprenticeship model on a panel at the National Opportunity Summit this past February that was sponsored by the Joyce Foundation.

While many parents and high school guidance counselors continue to overlook apprenticeships as a valid option for today’s students, the numbers tell a different story.

Did you know that apprentices in the US earn an average starting salary of $50,000 a year while gaining a credential that is the equivalent to a 2- or 4-year college degree? Except that instead of accruing college debt, these young people are earning money – an average of $15 per hour – from day one. And many will get a full-time job offer from their employer at the end of their apprenticeship program.

Employers benefit, too. They help to recruit and develop a highly-skilled workforce, which improves productivity and the bottom line. Studies have shown that apprentices also boost innovation at companies, as they have direct experience in the field during their years of training and are able to come up with creative solutions in the workplace when they join as full-time workers.

The expansion of apprenticeships has attracted bipartisan support – a rare example of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have introduced the LEAP (Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs) Act in an effort to help fill four million job vacancies across the country.

The LEAP act would offer a $1,000 federal tax credit to companies for each new apprentice they hire who are registered with the U.S. Dept. of Labor or a state apprenticeship agency.

While countries like England have increased apprenticeships 10 fold in the last two decades, and Germany and Switzerland have continued to train millions of young adults each year, the United States has failed to keep pace. Today, there are just 375,000 active registered apprentices in the U.S.

I know from personal experience that apprenticeships work. As a high school student three decades ago, I didn’t have the grades to go to college. My parents had enough money, but it just wasn’t for me. I wanted hands-on work and a way to support a family.

I attended my local vocational tech center and was accepted into a four-year plumbing, heating and cooling apprenticeship program. It was the start of a great career for me. Today I am president of Atomic Plumbing in Virginia Beach, and was recently named the 2015 Plumbing Contractor of the Year by Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine.

My company has 25 employees this year, including six full time apprentices who take classes and work with a master plumber for four years before taking their journeyman’s test. They receive 144 hours per year of formal training and education over a four-year period. When they complete their program, I offer them a full-time job as a technician. The average plumber earns $55,000 to $65,000 a year, and top plumbers can earn close to $90,000 a year.

As a local employer, I work closely with the Virginia Beach Technical Center. I also belong to SkillsUSA, a youth development program that holds competitions in various trades for high school students. And organizations like Explore the Trades also help to connect young people with apprenticeships in their area.

But I’m worried that fewer students are studying trades and entering apprenticeship programs. Seven years ago, there were 50 kids studying trades at the Tech Center. This year we have 28, even though there are plenty of apprenticeship programs in our area.

I think that as an industry and as a trade association, we need to do a better job of getting the word out. There are wonderful programs out there that lead to good jobs – real career paths that allow these students to learn skills they can take anywhere and take care of their families.

Apprenticeships expand access to the American Dream, and our companies, our economy and our youth need more of them.


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