Apprenticeship Programs Making a Comeback. Will they Ever Extend to Trusses?

An age-old doorway into skilled trades and a middle-class life, the apprenticeship is making a comeback, rebounding after all but disappearing in recent decades in the face of a decline in union membership and dwindling demand for skilled labor. And as the economy changes, today’s apprenticeships combine the chance for workers not only to master skills while earning a paycheck but to get a college degree at the same time.

When I was in high school back in the late 50’s, students with good grades could participate in apprenticeship, or internship programs away from school grounds. You went to school for a half day in the morning, then on to a welding shop, a retail sales store, a local machine shop or a lumber mill, to learn a trade. You were partnered with a carpenter, welder or machinist to learn the skills necessary for the job. Most jobs back then didn’t require a college education. Most colleges and universities didn’t have programs for the blue-collar jobs that made America great. The only way to learn to be an electrician, for example, was to be hired as an apprentice.

From the White House to executive suites, and from think tanks to such industry groups as the National Association of Manufacturers,  there’s a push to link apprenticeships with conventional education, mostly at community colleges, and produce a better-educated workforce capable of filling the more than 3.6 million skilled jobs the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates remain vacant in industries such as manufacturing—even at a time when more than triple that number of Americans are looking for work. Higher education, advocates say, can not only provide these newly minted workers with the critical-thinking skills they need for today’s jobs, but also leave them better prepared and more appealing to employers the next time things get tough.


Machinists these days have to operate sophisticated, computer numerical-controlled equipment like the $3 million Makino vertical machining center at JWD Machine in Fife, Wash. The company sent three apprentices to Ohio to learn how to run the super lathe, which can cut titanium parts under high heat and jet sprays. Now the three are teaching the factory’s other 42 machinists how to use the time-saving machine to make critical parts for the aerospace industry. They also spend four hours in class one night a week at Bates Technical College. “I knew my feeds and speeds for cutting aluminum, but why is it that way?” says  Ray Downes, who previously worked in a Chinese fast-food restaurant for a year after high school. “At Bates, they break it down into a math formula and show us where the numbers come from.”

Across the country in Virginia, at the sprawling Newport News Shipyard on the waterfront near where the James River spills into Chesapeake Bay, applications to the apprenticeship program have skyrocketed from barely 540 a dozen years ago to a record 6,300 this year. New apprentices spend two full days each week in college classes, while earning more than $30,000 to start and upwards of $50,000 by their fourth year. They spend the rest of the week on the waterfront learning one of 17 trades and helping build and repair the nation’s aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. The shipyard’s Apprentice School has its own 17-member faculty as well as nearly 70 craft instructors. Of those 6,300 applicants, it takes only 260 new apprentices each year—making it more selective than Harvard, Yale and Princeton. When the Apprentice School moves from its World War II-era brick building into a planned glass-and-steel showcase in downtown Newport News, it will even begin to offer bachelor’s degrees.

In the truss component industry, there are no schools that can teach the skills required to complete the job. All skills are learned on the job at a truss plant. Basic math skills and CAD training can be learned in high school, but reading and interpreting a set of blueprints and transferring that interpretation to an engineering program is not. Only through hands on training by experienced designers, one on one instruction by the software specialists, and your cognitive abilities, being able to “see” the job, do you acquire those skills.

Why is this the accepted norm? Will this ever change?

Richard Gould – Design Administration

Gould Design, Inc.