Bridging the Skills Gap with Apprenticeships 

Bridging the Skills Gap with Apprenticeships 

Engineer Students Learn to Use Computerized LatheLast week’s policy announcement from the Trump administration shows there is alignment with the White House perspective on national priorities and the immediate needs of the American manufacturing industry.

Apprenticeships are in the spotlight as the President touted the programs as a solution to bridge the skills gap. In an Executive Order June 15, the president outlined plans to focus on apprenticeships in America.

“America’s education systems and workforce development programs are in need of reform. In today’s rapidly changing economy, it is more important than ever to prepare workers to fill both existing and newly created jobs and to prepare workers for the jobs of the future,” according to the order.

Highlights of the announcement include expanding access to apprenticeships for both high school and college students, while improving or eliminating “federally funded education and workforce development programs that do not work.” Right now, there’s just one apprentice for every 40 college students in America, according to the National Skills Coalition.

With national attention on apprenticeships, it may make it easier for our industry to implement these programs on a more structured timeline and with higher success rates. The plastics industry has often discussed apprenticeships as the most efficient way to fill open positions for skilled workers.

Several apprenticeship programs backed by the public and/or private sector have already launched campaigns to attract the next generation of workers, and are successfully promoting manufacturing as a viable, innovative and high-tech career path.

For example, the state of Arkansas formed a partnership to fund Be Pro Be Proud. This mobile unit is geared toward the next generation of skilled workers, and offers a chance for hands-on understanding of potential career paths. The unit travels to different schools and events throughout the state, allowing students to try highly skilled careers, from CAD/CAM drafting to CNC operating to tool and die making.

In Colorado, Intertech Plastics CEO Noel Ginsburg spearheaded a move toward Swiss-style apprenticeships in state high schools. He now chairs the governor’s Business Experiential Learning Commission, which secured $9.5 million in grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies and JP Morgan Chase last year. The program aims to place 20,000 high school juniors and seniors into paid apprenticeships by 2027.

In Virginia, the U.S. headquarters of Stihl has one of the most highlighted examples of successful programs for plastics-specific apprenticeships, adapted from the German model of vocational training. With five career path options, Stihl has dedicated staff to facilitate the program and a high graduate success rate.

And in Texas, Plastic Molding Technology recently reignited its apprenticeship track to add to our comprehensive in-house training program. PMT renewed its focus on training in 2015, and received a boost last year with the award of a state grant for skills development. We’re now working with local and state organizations to launch our in-house accredited apprenticeship program. Paths include highly skilled positions we foresee as being harder to fill as the skills gap widens—plastics process technician, tool maker and quality technician.

It’s clear that training programs, especially apprenticeships, will be the key to aid job growth in manufacturing. A recent report from the National Skills Coalition found middle-skill jobs comprise 55 percent of the Texas labor market – yet only 43 percent of Texas workers have the requisite training to qualify for these jobs. The gap is much wider in El Paso – only 13 percent of workers qualify by recent estimates from the Brookings Institution. To address this critical situation, it’s time to develop a collaborative effort to take ownership and find solutions.

Our renewed emphasis on training hinges on deeply rooted principles. In the 1990s, the founder of PMT, Charles E. Sholtis, launched an apprenticeship program in conjunction with the state of Connecticut. One successful graduate of that program has been with PMT for over 20 years, and is now the company’s Chief Maintenance Engineer.

Sholtis wrote a Letter to the Editor for Modern Plastics in 1995, describing the need for a “back-to-basics” apprenticeship training approach in the plastics industry. The article remains relevant (read it here) two decades later.

It took some time, but the government is finally catching up with what our industry has known all along—it’s time to get serious about apprenticeships.