The Apprentice Returns

Michael Bernick
Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and former Director of the California Employment Development Department

apprenticeshipThis week, the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges will be asked to approve more than $16 million in California Apprenticeship Initiative (CAI) projects to expand apprenticeship presence and enrollment in California. The CAI is part of the broader California investment in expanding apprenticeships, the largest state investment in the nation. It is timely to ask: Why have apprenticeships not had wider use in California over the past four decades? What might be expected from the new CAI?

The apprenticeship concept is a popular one, across the political spectrum. It evokes images of a pre-industrial economy, in which workers learn on the job, while producing goods that are needed (real work). It calls forth Walt Whitman’s celebration of America singing in work: the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the shoemaker.

According to the California state Division of Apprenticeship Standards (DAS), in 2014 there were 53,366 apprentices enrolled in 540 apprenticeship programs. The great majority of these programs were tied to the building and construction trades, and primarily operated by joint labor management committees. They included 41 apprenticeship programs in the electrical-electronic crafts, 11 apprenticeship programs in carpentry, and others for painters, operating engineers, ironworkers, cement masons and laborers.

Outside of the building trades, apprenticeship programs are operating in surveying, cosmetology, automotive repair and sanitary services. But the numbers of these non-building trades apprenticeships are small. Further, attempts by state government to expand the apprenticeship beyond the building trades have not met with a lot of success since the late 1970s.

As with other workforce issues, today’s “innovative” strategy of the apprenticeship is actually a strategy that Governor Jerry Brown was advocating during his first terms as Governor. In the late 1970s he proposed a “New Initiatives in Apprenticeship” to expand the apprenticeship to non-traditional fields. Don Vial chaired a Governor’s Task Force on New Initiatives in Apprenticeship, which focused in part on the health care field. Minutes of a Task Force meeting on February 27, 1978 show proposals for an apprenticeship in Rural Health, and apprenticeships for Certified Nurse Assistants and Licensed Vocational Nurses. Each of these continues to be proposed today. The Task Force also put forward apprenticeship programs for emergency medical technicians, computer programmers and computer-assisted designers and drafters.

No one knows more about apprenticeships in California than Diane Ravnik, the current DAS head. Diane served at DAS during the first Brown Administration and has served in every Administration since. Her 1984 law review article on the newly-formed Employment Training Panel (ETP) and apprenticeships, “From Smokestacks to High Tech: Retraining Workers for a Technological Age” retains relevance for today’s labor markets.

ravnikRavnik notes that apprenticeships in non-traditional fields were created in the late 1970s and early 1980s in California, but lacked the staying power of the building trades apprenticeships. The trade unions that powered the building trades apprenticeships, through their collective bargaining agreements, were not as strong or even present in other sectors. Employers might be convinced to start apprenticeship structures, but stopped over time due to the required government oversight and costs. The apprenticeship places training and administrative costs on employers. With the unionized building trades, these costs were incorporated in collective bargaining agreements. In other sectors, the costs were placed on groups of employers or single employers, who could withdraw at any time.

This indeed is the challenge for the apprenticeship projects seeking to establish apprenticeships under the CAI—how can new apprenticeships in such sectors as health care, information technology, and advanced manufacturing be structured to address the past obstacles of oversight and costs.

Despite (or because of) her long history in the field, Ravnik sees opportunity in CAI, in part due to the internal expertise that the community college interest will bring to CAI as well as the apprenticeship initiatives in 2016 of the Employment Training Panel and California Workforce Development Board. CAI also benefits from the heightened role of the “earn-and-learn” approach in the 2016 workforce agenda of both the state government and federal government.

Indeed, a number of the CAI projects are already underway in their efforts to engage employers. One of these projects is the Cybersecurity Apprenticeship being developed by MetroED, the well-regarded adult education and career technical center in San Jose.

Jodi Edwards-Wright, the Director of Instruction and Accountability, and experienced business liaison, Jim Stoch, have been contacting employers, such as Xilinx, Cisco, FireEye, Palo Alto Networks and Ampdesk. They have been participating in the cybersecurity meetings in the Silicon Valley on training curriculum. They are seeking to understand what skills employers will need in cybersecurity specialists, what will be an effective training curriculum and effective work experience, most of all, what will motivate employers to participate in an apprenticeship structure.

Another apprenticeship effort already with traction is one being developed by Coast Community College District and the Occupational Safety Councils of America (OSCA), the workforce intermediary for the petroleum industry. This is a Safety Technician Apprenticeship, for workers in both the petroleum and construction sectors. Again, the emphasis has been on employer engagement, identifying skills needed, effective work experience, and the incentives for employers to participate.

In 2016, who would have thought that a pre-industrial training form would find new life in our post-industrial California economy. But the apprentice has found new relevance, and the CAI is an initiative worth closely following in the next two years.

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