Transforming students into journeymen

July 11, 2011
Joel Leonard advocates development of Tech Corps.

Despite the still high unemployment, employers continue to complain about the difficulty in locating qualified replacements for the retiring Baby Boom generation. As companies grudgingly convert from being pirates who steal other’s talent to farmers who grow their own, some of the old terminology can inhibit progress forward. As we know, the traditional stages are apprentice, journeyman and then master craftsman.

The feedback I hear from industry is that companies don’t mind engaging more apprentices. However their fear of investing time, money and resources in talent that might leave to pursue the journeyman status inhibits true commitment to a future workforce. As retired maintenance guru Pete Little would say, “Training might be expensive, but not training is extravagant.” To help overcome this obstacle to mitigating the maintenance crisis, I’ve been on a journey to learn about these traditions and have been surprised at some of the findings.

Did you know that the origin of the waltz wasn’t dancing? Actually, it’s from a medieval period in Germany when apprentices would be cast out to venture into other areas to develop skill sets and support other areas in a journey.

Also, I had the pleasure of meeting a young German craftswoman recently who is on her waltz, her journey, to deepen her knowledge and skill set. She’s been building strong, sturdy bookshelves and adding unique features to her host family in a country estate close to Washington, D.C. She wouldn’t allow me to film her or use her name, as she is carving her own path on her own journey while not being confined by the rigid structure characteristic of the German guilds. To meet a 25-year-old nowadays who has interest in developing trade skills and learning from solid traditions of the past while being independent and strong enough to blaze a new path forward was quite remarkable.

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Her next step will be to volunteer at an Amish farm and learn from some of their craftsmen who build solid wooden, not plastic, furniture. Unlike most of her contemporaries, this young lady isn’t as interested in money as in the journey and the opportunity to build true masterpieces. If more U.S. citizens would cultivate these attributes, our businesses would thrive as their output would be long-lasting and of solid design.

Perhaps to help foster their latent talent, regions of the country could develop Tech Corps, similar in concept to the Peace Corps. Regions would develop challenges, educational programs, mentorship opportunities and industrial tours. Students would learn various skilled trades and fulfill project requirements. Area employers could monitor them along the journey to examine their work ethic, their strengths and weaknesses in the work world so they might make informed hiring decisions in the future.

Regions or states that invest in Tech Corps development would have an advantage in retaining existing and attracting new businesses to their areas. This would require a partnership with industry, community colleges and economic development organizations to fund this noble endeavor.

To avoid the incipient corporate amnesia, we need to take the best traditions of the past and the new tools of today to build the opportunities for tomorrow.

Many businesses are becoming engaged in reliability initiatives and seeing significant payback. I just received a note from a maintenance leader at Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He reported a savings of more than $800,000 in compressor energy cost by plugging more than 3,000 leaks and mothballing two of five compressed air systems. As a result of this enormous payback, the company is working closely with Fayetteville Technical Community College to develop an ongoing apprenticeship program, fully funded by Goodyear, to take advantage of more opportunities in reliability improvement and to develop the next generation of skilled labor.

If more organizations, colleges, regions and states implement Tech Corps, we’ll have s pipeline that we desperately need to compete in today’s hypercompetitive business climate.

Email Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at [email protected].

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