Rob Christensen

Democrats and Republicans can agree on one way to get more people working

In this 2015 file photo, Owen Sims, then 17, an apprentice at Daetwyler Industries in Huntersville, N.C., is adjusting the doctor blade that is used on printing presses.
In this 2015 file photo, Owen Sims, then 17, an apprentice at Daetwyler Industries in Huntersville, N.C., is adjusting the doctor blade that is used on printing presses. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Here is one topic you can safely talk about with your family over the holidays without fear of World War III breaking out.

At a time when employers are talking about the shortage of skilled workers, when students are stuck with growing college loan debts, and when there is often a mismatch between the skill sets the students are learning and those needed in the workplace, there is increasing interest in apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships are those programs where students combine paid, on-the-job-learning with classroom instruction, completing the program with work experience and no student debt.

The subject is not as familiar as other routes of education.

But apprenticeships hold special promise in North Carolina, a state where many areas have had difficulty recovering from the Great Recession – where traditional jobs in manufacturing have not come back.

Apprenticeships have been a way of life in Europe, particularly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and increasingly in Great Britain.

But apprenticeships have had a harder time catching on in the United States where only about 500,000 people were participating in 2016, compared to 18 million students enrolled in higher education.

Most of the apprenticeships have been male dominated and in building trades and manufacturing.

But that is beginning to change. During the Obama administration, Labor Secretary Tom Perez – now the Democratic Party chairman – was a major supporter of apprenticeships, helping push through $250 million for expanding apprenticeship programs. Former President Barack Obama in 2014 called for doubling the number of apprenticeships within five years – a goal the country will not meet.

The Republican Trump Administration this summer issued an executive order for expanding the apprenticeship system and in November created a task force on the issue.

The U.S. House Education Committee, chaired by Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, included expansion of apprenticeship programs in its draft budget. Earlier this year, Foxx praised apprenticeships as a means for states and communities working with the private sector to devise programs that fit their local needs.

“While companies across the country have openings for high paying jobs, and are anxious to hire, many workers lack the skills and adequate education needed to qualify and compete for those jobs,” Foxx said. “Already we face a great shortage of workers with the skills to fill the current six million vacant jobs, and our economy is currently on track to face a shortage of 11 million workers who have the necessary credentials to satisfy the needs of the country by 2020.”

On the state level, Republican Mark Johnson, the new superintendent of public instruction, is an enthusiastic backer of apprenticeships.

“Apprenticeships is really that rarest of topics in Washington D.C. – one that still enjoys a significant amount of bipartisan support,’’ said Mary Alice McCarthy, who earned her doctorate at UNC Chapel Hill and is now director of the Center on Education and Skills with New America, a nonpartisan, Washington-based think tank. “And that bipartisan support reflects public sentiment toward apprenticeships.”

McCarthy spoke at a recent conference of the New America program in Washington. One of the sponsors is Siemens USA’s foundation, tied to the German conglomerate which is Europe’s largest manufacturing company.

Siemens, a major North Carolina employer with facilities located across the state including several in the Triangle, is a leader in pushing for expansion of apprenticeship programs.

When Siemens Energy opened a gas turbine plant in Charlotte, 10,000 people applied for 800 positions, but fewer than 15 percent were able to pass reading, writing and math screening tests geared toward a 9th grade education.

In 2011, Siemens created an apprenticeship program for seniors at Charlotte-area high schools that combines four years of on-the job training with an associates degree in mechatronics from Central Piedmont Community College. When they finish, graduates have no student loan debt and can earn more than $50,000 per year.

The average college graduate now has $30,000 in student loan debt when he or she leaves campus and uncertain job prospects.

More than 80 percent of people who graduate from apprenticeship programs move directly into a job – usually with the same company in which they trained. The average starting salary, according to McCarthy, is more than $60,000 per year.

I know about apprenticeships from personal experience. My father apprenticed as a saw smith, providing him with a trade that enabled him to earn a decent income. A number of my high school classmates who had little interest in college apprenticed during school and learned valuable skills such as becoming tool and dye makers who can earn as much as $75,000 per year.

So why aren’t apprenticeships more widespread?

Experts cite several reasons. Apprenticeships have traditionally been sort of orphans in the education system, unattached to the secondary and elementary schools or higher education systems. Proponents are looking for ways to break down those barriers so apprenticeships would be better coordinated with existing educational institutions as they are now in Europe.

They also say there needs to be broader use of apprenticeships in high-growth fields such as health care; that more parents need to be open to their kids entering an apprenticeship program tied to a two-year degree; and that employers need to re-examine the trend of so-called credential inflation, demand for degrees in fields that had not required them in the past.

The payoff is that kids can be trained for real jobs with good pay; employers can get the skilled workers they need; parents won’t be stuck with unemployed graduates returning home; and students won’t have huge debts.

“I think it is safe to say that apprenticeships is the one topic,” McCarthy said, “that it is safe to talk about over the holidays.”

Rob Christensen can be reached at robc@newsobserver.com or at 919-829-4532.

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