A Call for Co-ops Print E-mail
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Written by Peter Grundy   
Saturday, 28 February 2009 19:00
Better Manufacturing

Who needs apprenticeships? We do.

Last time, we looked at market stability and touched on once-common apprenticeships. We did not spend much time considering this subject, but it clearly should be considered in more detail.

In November, I wrote: “Apprenticeships were usually owned and controlled by an employer that could advise an apprentice how to make the best use of their abilities. In some cases, this would lead to a degree, in some cases not, but the balance of talent available permitted continuous company growth until long-term development strategies became difficult to fund because of economic instability.” The theory behind this remains true today, but we can now argue that, whatever the economic circumstances, we should return to the apprenticeship model to cover all types of requirements.

The traditional apprentice was generally a product of the manufacturing industry, but this need not be so. All new employees have to learn their trade, be it manufacturing, finance, retail, medical or anything else. Today, we have a culture that allows our younger members of society to assume they are academically gifted and that society – i.e., you and me – owes them a living. The notion of starting at the bottom rung of the ladder is abhorrent to many of them: They think they can attend college, get some sort of degree, and command a high salary at a young age. For a very small number this is true, but the vast majority of young people need to learn the basics of life and society before they can contribute. So, there is a case for on-the-job learning: the apprenticeship.

It is not fair to put the financial burden on one or two companies. A government-backed strategy that encourages many participants is the way forward. In the UK, the once government-sponsored organization called the EITB (Engineering Industry Training Board) had large numbers of diverse engineering companies as participants. Each company was eligible for varying amounts of support, yet they acted in concert toward a standard level of training, ensuring whatever an apprentice achieved in company A was known and acceptable to company B.

This meant any company in the EITB could hire apprentices from other EITB companies and be assured they brought the same standards of training. The scheme was structured so that all abilities could achieve a recognized standard ranging from manual labor to degree and post-graduate study. Many universities established special courses so students could spend six months in college and six months working. Most companies, in parallel, established integrated work practices. This “on-the-job” training had the ultimate goal that all apprentices finish their studies, which were tailored to suit the needs of both apprentice and company, at a time when they could immediately offer useful employment.

Today, the academic system churns out large numbers of degree-qualified people, many with no idea of what they want to do when they start, who may or may not use their degree for any useful purpose.

The counter-argument to this is a degree teaches one how to think, and an active, educated mind should be able to adapt to anything. Evidence of this is sparse, however, and often degreed workers are stuck in ill-suited jobs. To support this, consider how many people move through many jobs in a lifetime. What’s the problem, you may ask? In essence, switching jobs is good for broadening experience, but reduces employment stability.

The original apprenticeships often engendered a career for life and this practice may be less helpful today than 40 years ago. So, we need a blend of what went before together with more mobility than we knew before.

Now, we can possibly group degrees into “soft” and “hard” subjects, and the current trend of government to urge young people to go for high-level education often produces more “soft” degrees because they often opt for what they perceive as an easy option. Many leave school with a degree of little relevance to the needs of finance, industry or anything else. In many cases, more graduate than their chosen field of study can employ.

Back to the notion of apprenticeships. Most properly organized apprenticeship schemes take in a number of young people from a diverse range of backgrounds and regularly review their progress so the company concerned can monitor and advise apprentices through learning while working. Those novices who made up their minds at a young age to follow a particular career often do so with the aid of apprenticeships. It is equally true a young person who has a perceived goal while in their mid-teens may discover the chosen career was not what it seemed. The apprenticeship permits students to alter course without major dramas. For example, a young student convinced electronic engineering is the career to end all careers may suddenly find it was not a good fit and, perhaps, a career in marketing for the same employer would bring rewards for both company and student.

This is a huge change in direction, but it is linked to the same company, so the student has good knowledge of how it operates. Meanwhile, the company knows many of the strengths of the student and can guide them accordingly.

This could work, provided sufficiently large numbers of companies participate in such co-ops and pay pro-rata contributions to the scheme – in essence, the larger the revenue, the larger the contribution – and each company can accept that student employees may wish to switch companies at some time. If the move is to another member of the scheme, then the cost of the scheme is not a massive burden to its participants. Only if there is a hemorrhaging of students away from participating members will there be a crisis of costs. Therefore, if a new scheme is to be set up, its organizers must be aware a sufficiently large number of participating companies need to be attracted, and they must permit mobility of students between participants. The sole downside is if a company finds no suitable career for a student once the course has been run. Clearly, the student will want to leave, and the company must hope the move will be to another participant.

Another, oft-overlooked aspect of apprenticeships is the early introduction to networking. Students quickly realize the enormous diversity of backgrounds offers a different view on life and work and provides them with contacts and friends throughout their working lives. It is not always what you know but whom you know that can help solve problems.

It would be interesting to see if this type of training could be set up again. Today there are many more career alternatives and so, in theory, there could be a wider range of participants.

Governments can get a grip on long-term planning needs if they know how many people are being trained in an established way, and can therefore track likely trends. Hopefully, the future will see a return to stability. 

Peter Grundy is director of P G Engineering (Sussex) Ltd. and ITM Consulting (itmconsulting.org); This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His column appears bimonthly.



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