Appraising today's apprenticeships

Your future success will depend on how well you’re training the next generation.

By Heinz Bloch, P.E.

Reading about renewed interest in apprenticeship programs caused me to recall my three-year apprenticeship after graduating from my German hometown’s high school in 1950. Elementary school students entered high school after passing a competitive exam, which is one reason why we had only about 60 students. (My hometown then had a population of 62,000; the population has since grown to 109,000.) Only half of the graduating class found employers willing to take in and train apprentices. The other departing students either obtained employment as industrial workers or opted for a university education.

Apprentices worked an average of 52 hours in a workweek that filled the time from Monday morning until noon Saturday. However, one eight-hour day each week was taken up by mandatory attendance at the county’s Trades & Crafts Training School. This is where the theory of a particular craft segment (electrical, mechanical, construction, etc.) was taught to apprentices, most of whom had not attended high school. Having secured an apprenticeship as a telephone installer, I spent my trade-school days with the future electricians. Some of what I learned I already knew from high school, but I still benefited in a variety of ways. 

One of the texts that had to be read and absorbed by the electrical apprentices dealt with the development of craftsmen, the folks who added value by using their hands. The book’s author, a Mr. Laufer, had it published in 1920 under the fitting title “Werkstattausbildung” (shop training), and I brought the book with me to America in 1953. Translating from the foreword as I write this column, I realize that the introductory pages are part lament and part admonition: “…regrettably, an apprentice’s career choice is not always determined by his general aptitude and serious inclination, but rather by the boy’s random and superficial desires, his father’s occupation, or easy access to a shop location.” Laufer continued: “It is of special importance in the machine construction environment that the future apprentice is bodily able and is at least an average student, one with sufficient comprehension and a demonstrable degree of motivation.”

Finally, this 97-year-old text informs its readers that “a variety of large-scale employers are therefore making the hiring of their apprentices contingent upon passing entry tests that are linked to the applicant’s school background, attentiveness, perceptiveness, and technical understanding.” And that, perhaps, best explains why I’m selective when it comes to my choice of automobiles and why my 1966 GrundigKonzertboy radio is still playing.

While I understand that today’s and tomorrow’s criteria for the selection of apprentices will differ from those expressed in “Werkstattausbildung,” my point is simple. I strongly advise the people who will make far-reaching apprenticeship decisions to make wise and wholly deliberate choices. Hopefully, these decision-influencers will realize that the reputation and success of an industrial society is grounded in the wisdom with which its many job functions – its engineers and designers and workers and operators – have been trained. Notwithstanding one major European automaker’s recent deplorable glitches in management judgment, sound and uncompromising apprenticeship training will remain an essential ingredient of a prosperous future.

In the mid-1950s we understood that the United States ranked first worldwide in terms of mathematics skills and science education. Several decades later, in 2015, the country ranked 35th out of 64 countries surveyed. This should be of interest to us because the individuals who are now in school or have just started employment are the country’s present or future technicians, craftsmen, maintenance-reliability professionals, and equipment operators. The needs and wants of many of these individuals are out of sync with reality; some are mere consumers who misperceive the value they actually add. There will be a significant gap between their expectations and the realities of life. Employers will see that turning an uninformed or unrealistic person into a value-adder will require considerable patience. Use a large amount of forethought when you develop an apprentice program.

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