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National Apprenticeship Week: Why Don’t we Work With our Hands Anymore?

There’s a great old movie called “Teacher’s Pet,” made in 1958, in which Clark Gable plays a hard-nosed newspaper man named James Gannon. He’s in a feud with Doris Day’s character, who is a journalism instructor at a local night school. Gannon thinks going to school for journalism is bogus — the only real way to learn is to sweat it out in the newsroom: 

Teacher’s Pet (1958) Paramount Pictures

“So he’s got more degrees than a thermometer, so he speaks seven languages, so he’s read every book. So what? The important thing is he’s had no experience. He didn’t start at the bottom and work up. That’s the only way you can learn.”

Turns out, there’s lots of people who are starting to agree with Mr. Gannon and this week, National Apprenticeship Week, is dedicated to those kinds of people. I wanted to explore some of the reasons that the apprentice model is having a revival, why it needed a revival at all, and how it is affecting lives right here in Columbus.

I spoke with Beth Gifford, President and CEO of Columbus Works, to get her take on some of these national trends and how her organization is working to change things here. Columbus Works is a non-profit organization providing job training and placement services to area residents living in poverty who desire to advance to economic self-sufficiency through employment. Her insights into the local labor force were incredibly helpful as I started to tackle this question of “why don’t we work with our hands anymore?” 

Changing Attitudes About Work

First it feels important to address a mindset shift that seemed to occur sometime in the past 50 years. Many of our grandfathers worked with their hands. Throughout America’s booming years, there was ample manufacturing– especially in this part of the country. And then somewhere along the line, the idea of working with your hands became somehow less than. There were no shortages of jokes about plumbers or factory workers in sitcoms when I was growing up. It seems that almost everyone united under the premise that a four-year degree in a liberal arts discipline was somehow the pinnacle of education.

Slight hiccup: there’s not tons of practical use for those degrees without further training or even more advanced degrees…

Mike Rowe, the guy from the Dirty Jobs show, talks about this phenomenon all the time:

“I strongly support education in all its forms. I have a college degree, and as I’ve said many times, it’s served me well. But I believe society is making a terrible mistake by promoting college at the expense of all other forms of education. For instance, the surgeon […] will never make it to the hospital to successfully remove my appendix without a functional infrastructure, which depends almost entirely upon an army of skilled tradespeople. And yet, our society clearly values the surgeon far more than mechanic who keeps her car running, or the contractor who put in the roads that allows her to drive to the emergency room.”

America’s College Tuition Crisis

As the quotes above describe, one of the most obvious reasons that people are turning to trades, and one of the most vigorous topics of discussion in the US right now, is the skyrocketing costs of college.

Last year Time magazine looked back through their archives to see how the conversation on college costs had changed over the century they’ve been covering topics of interest to Americans. What they found was that while the costs of tuition have always been of concern to American families, the scale of those costs and increases is at an all-time high. Meaning that proportional to family incomes, the cost of attending college has been inflating exponentially.

While the costs of attending college are rising, the number of students attempting to attend college is also rising  (probably because of that perception that college is the only way to go). But a slimming margin of those people are actually finishing the degrees they set out to achieve. This means rising student loan burdens and declining diplomas. CNBC sites “over 44 million Americans collectively hold more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt and only 54.8 percent of students graduate in six years.”

The Retiring Workforce

Besides the ever-blooming costs of college and the decreasing odds that those who start to pursue degrees will ever finish them… there is the aging workforce handling those skilled trades jobs Mike Rowe talks about.

During America’s booming manufacturing years, it was considered both lucrative and respectable to pursue a career in a skilled trade. Until, for some reason, we all changed our minds about that…  

Beth Giffords says that “for several decades it was not a priority to encourage youth or students to participate in apprenticeship programs. While there were still apprenticeship programs in place, there was little focus on encouraging participation.”

Now we’re in a collective position where the skilled workers are getting old and they’re ready to retire, but there’s almost nobody ready to take over for them. The stats on baby boomers currently holding skilled trade positions, and how few young workers are in line to replace them, are dumbfounding. Research conducted by Adecco says that by 2020 there will be 31 million jobs vacated by retiring baby boomers without skilled workers ready to take over. These are positions like electricians, HVAC techs, plumbers, pipe fitters, construction workers, and machinists.

But combating that paradigm we’ve created about the superiority of “thinking-based” collegiate careers versus labor-based skilled trades isn’t easy. I asked Beth Giffords about what has changed in the new wave of apprentice work, part of it seems to be effectively conveying the value of the training and part of it seems to be adjusting the nature of the work itself:  

Technical schools, educators, and employers are successfully marketing the value proposition of working in the skilled trades to students, their parents, as well as adults in career transition. Companies have enriched jobs in the skilled trades, to include technology and requiring decision making and judgement. This new skilled trade job is attractive to the 21st century worker.”

Earn While You Learn & Apprenticeship in Columbus

This movement towards experience-based learning has many advantages and there are groups right here in town working to train and employ apprentices in many different fields.

Columbus Works helps to bring people out of unemployment and into lucrative positions. And they’re very successful at it. Gifford says that “82% of our working Members retain employment. 10% have been promoted this year.”

We’ve written about Franklinton Rising, which provides training in construction and homebuilding, and the HireLevel Auto group which trains young people to be auto mechanics. Additionally, Columbus State provides incredible two-year degrees and many apprenticeship programs designed to put people to work quickly– sometimes while you’re still in school.

A Tale of Two Degrees

I am the recipient of a Bachelor’s degree in English from the Ohio University Honors Tutorial Program and I have been paying on a mounting pile of student loans for almost a decade now. Recently I refinanced them all into a single, giant payment and will hopefully kill them in the next 5 years, but those payments are staggeringly high and my path to my career was a winding one supplemented with lots of bartending.

My husband had a BFA in Painting and Printmaking that he was using to work at a string of local coffee shops until he decided to attend Columbus State for the Electromechanical Engineering Tech program. He was done in 2 years flat, we were able to pay for all of his schooling out of pocket as he pursued this degree and he started earning money (and credit towards his degree) at Honda during the second year of his program. Now he is employed on Honda’s maintenance team full time and could basically get a job anywhere on earth with his skill set. Plus he makes more money than me. (I’m clearly a convert.)

Beth Gifford talked about the life-changing aspect of the “earn while you learn” model, especially for people who were entirely out of work before pursuing their apprenticeship:

For adults transitioning from unemployment getting involved in an apprenticeship program increases their earning power in a shorter period of time. What may have taken 7-10 years in working their way up, maybe getting on-the-job training opportunities, can be completed in 3 years.

So, what kind of opportunities exist locally for people in skilled trades?

Short answer: tons.

Gifford said that “individuals who have completed a skilled trade apprenticeship program can expect to be in demand by employers all over the city.” Their opportunities can include “industries such as facilities management, building services, construction, healthcare, manufacturing, automotive services, transportation, air transport, and distribution.” Additionally, the “employees with excellent soft skills combined with their skilled trade credential can expect to be courted by multiple employers.”

I don’t know about you, but “courted by multiple employers” sounds to me like a pretty enviable position in 2017 America.

Feature photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Staff writer, editor, and producer for 1812 Columbus. Creative Community Director for SEEN Digital Media and