OPINION: Say ‘YES’ to National Apprenticeship Week



This week marks what has become known in America as National Apprenticeship Week (NAW). Some people in the general population may not be aware of the fact that NAW is now in its 5th year. Nonetheless, this week is dedicated to spreading the good news with respect to how Registered Apprenticeship Programs (RAP) can become a vital piece of the puzzle as our nation tackles the predicted shortage of skilled workers.

From 2003 to 2010, I had the honor and pleasure to serve on the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Federal Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship (ACA). In the early days, President G.W. Bush’s administration was focused on revamping the RAP system to meet the needs of a 21st Century economy. By November, 2008, the ACA had provided our nation with the first major overhaul of the federal guidelines codifying apprenticeship since 1937 when FDR included apprenticeship as part of the New Deal (Fitzgerald Act).

In an attempt to take an active role in this improvement process undertaken within the U.S., I felt a strong need to look beyond our borders.

To this end, having travelled to over a dozen countries to research these nations’ workforce development systems, I can attest that both Germany and Switzerland rank near the top of my list when it comes to serving as the world’s Gold Standard for training tomorrow’s workers.

Why? Both these countries consider the development of young talent key to their sustainability as global leaders in an array of industrial sectors. To make this happen it takes the cooperation of several stakeholders: industry, Labor, and government:

  • Business sector is the main driver since their demands—via customers—create the need for specialized workers.
  • Union sector ensures that apprentices are trained for the betterment of the industry and not merely a source of cheap labor for any one company.
  • Government sector serves as the body that oversees quality of the apprenticeship program (i.e., curriculum, progression, certification, post-graduation studies, etc.).

I view this model as the three-legged stool. Take away any one of those legs and the stool falls over.


Both of these European countries endorse the apprenticeship pathway equal to or better than the university route. Due to this cultural understanding, nearly 50 percent of the children transitioning from elementary school to high school are enrolled in the apprenticeship track in Germany and Switzerland.

Thus, three to four years later, journey-level workers (from over 300 industry sectors) are graduating from high schools ready to enter the adult work-world as productive members of society. Meanwhile, in many of the RAPs in the U.S. the average age of an apprentice is 28 years old. This can mainly be attributed to our parents’ “college for all” mindset and/or a fear of “tracking” adolescents in their early years of education.

In 2015, President Obama’s administration continued the work of his predecessor and committed substantial investments in diversifying the RAP model to non-traditional industry sectors (i.e., IT, healthcare, etc.).

The state of Missouri is fortunate to have two champions of this system: Mardy Leathers in the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development and Dr. Oscar Carter in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The insights and leadership of these government servants has been the impetus for designing, developing and implementing several RAPs across the state that are addressing the needs of the businesses and students who reside in those particular communities (i.e., advanced manufacturing).

Finally, it is important to note that in order to attract, recruit, and retain workers in today’s world, we must become more open to the wants, needs, and desires of tomorrow’s workers.

It is no longer enough to provide workers with what WE think is important to them (i.e., technical skills, good pay, etc.). Rather it would behoove today’s leaders in the Labor, management, and government sectors to review the recent research findings from Dr. Sam White’s (West Virginia University) longitudinal study concerning these very matters.

More and more, I am noticing that tomorrow’s workers are not merely interested in what happens within a firm’s four walls. They also want input on what happens on the outside as part of their work experiences. To this end, we might once again consider following the work of our European counterparts.

On Nov. 22, World Skills UK is joining forces with mental health experts to develop mental resiliency with 2,000 14-18-year-olds. (worldskillsuk.org/worldskills-uk-news/worldskills-uk-and-million-minds-tackle-youth-mental-health.)

In other words, as an employer, Labor union, or training school, are you engaging your workers from a 360-degree perspective?

If WE are truly interested in solving tomorrow’s anticipated workforce dilemma, it seems the time has come for all of America to say “YES” to NAW.

(Dr. John S. Gaal is professor of Labor-Management Relations at Webster University and the retired Director of Training & Workforce Development for the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council. Reach him at Jsgaal59@gmail.com.)


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