COMMENTARY: Apprenticeship ‘best of both worlds’ for students

After several long years of recession, Delaware’s economic picture has finally stabilized and companies are once again beginning to expand. While this is welcome news, there is a looming threat on the horizon — a growing skills gap. Employers are finding it increasingly difficult to fill positions that require advanced technical skills.

For the moment, status quo is being maintained through the delay of pending retirements and an expansion of the recruitment area. Unfortunately, as all indicators show that our workforce will continue to age, it has become apparent that these stopgap solutions are a temporary fix at best.

The good news is there is a solution that has stood the test of time — registered apprenticeship. Apprenticeship has existed for centuries and is a proven way to prepare a sustainable workforce. In the traditional apprentice model, students participate in classroom instruction, where they gain theoretical knowledge at the same time that they receive on-the-job training (OJT) with their employer. In essence, students who participate in apprenticeship are getting the best of both worlds.

Apprenticeship offers several unique benefits to employers:

• First, participating in an apprenticeship program allows employers to build what one of our local apprentice sponsors likes to refer to as a “farm team.” Rather than waiting until someone leaves, they are able to begin developing the talent to meet their future workforce needs well in advance.

• Second, apprenticeship programs provide employers with employees who are trained precisely to meet their unique needs. The combination of classroom and OJT equips apprentices with a customized skill set that is more practical and immediately useful than any other training model can provide.

• Third, companies who invest in the professional development of their employees find that those employees are far more loyal, dedicated, and productive as a result. Companies have repeatedly told us that while they initially feared their apprentices would leave in search of more money, in reality, what they found was a far more stable workforce.

• Finally, apprenticeship programs help the bottom line. According to a 2014 report published by the Center for American Progress, countries that invest heavily in apprenticeship report a significant return on investment. There are several reasons for this, most of which follow directly from benefits one, two, and three cited above.

As the Kent County provider of apprenticeship for over 50 years, Polytech has witnessed each of these benefits firsthand. Unfortunately, to date, apprenticeship in Delaware has been limited to the traditional trades, and these benefits have not been available to Delaware employers overall.

Since the growing skills gap does not just exist in the trades, why not apply this proven model to other industry sectors? Is there a reason why Delaware IT [information technology], health care, advanced manufacturing, and automotive employers would not benefit from the advantages listed above? As a provider of apprenticeship training and an organization that has seen firsthand the benefits apprenticeship has to offer, we believe strongly that the answer is “no.”

The state of Delaware, including the three countywide vocational districts, the Department of Education, and the Department of Labor, is committed to the goal of expanding apprenticeship. As we explore the best way to move forward, one thing is becoming increasingly clear — flexibility will be required for success. Employers are far more interested in demonstration of competency than they are in how long someone spends in training.

Adopting such a model will require identifying meaningful and commonly accepted measurements of competency. Expanding apprenticeship will also require exploring new ways to deliver training, such as offering online and blended instruction.

When it comes to apprenticeship, all of this is new ground, and the Polytech Adult Education Division is proud to be a part of it. It is real-world, innovative solutions like these that will ensure the workforce in Delaware remains strong and will be ready to meet the challenges of the future.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Deborah Zych, Ed.D, is superintendent; Elizabeth Jones, Ed.D, is adult division director; and Jeremy McEntire, is supervisor of training and apprenticeship, of Polytech School District, which is coextensive with Kent County and comprises a single school, Polytech High School.

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