Future Technician Preparation: Apprenticeships in the Education System

Reinforcing and extending last month’s theme, two-year community college programs that focus on technician preparation have three forcing functions that dictate their course of action: the education system structure; the teaching approach; and the faculty professional development platform. Although technical advancements triggered by new technology creates Future of Work impact on technician education, the education of technicians also affects the complexity of Future of Work issues. New and/or extended skills with the accompanying expanded knowledge required to interact with advanced technology in the workspace will not be effectively infused into the technician workforce if the education system structure maintains a “business as usual” operational mindset. The European Union recognized this issue in the late 1990’s and came to grips with its complications through the Bologna Process (February FLATE Focus). The United States is tackling the issues but in spirts and splashes with some success related to teaching approach and faculty professional development. However, a national adjustment of the technician education system to address skills and knowledge-based Future of Work issues is still off stage waiting in the wings. 

A fundamental pillar of the technician education system is the time duration students invest in that education. For the EU this time issue was not as challenging. Their existing education structure already included the expectation that graduates would possess required technical skills and their education structures impose contiguous student enrolment in school to meet that expectation. By contrast, the U.S. education system with its 19th century “serve the agricultural sector” roots always accepted various versions of the “time to leave school and go to work” rational imposed on it by society. Although putting people to work back on the farm or in labor intensive industry as soon as possible was essential then, the advanced skills nature of work in society today cannot be addressed effectively with that student or society mindset. If the two-year technician education time frame is to remain, the Future of Work prepared technicians need more efficient use of student time within the education system.

The time students spend in school is the crux of the issue. Extending technician education, using a traditional 2 semester per year structure, beyond a two-year frame is not likely to be accepted at a national level for several reasons. One compelling reason is that most potential technicians will not enroll in a three-year college program. The perception of “get out and go to work” is too ingrained within the society plus student misconception of the quality of work available to a high school graduate reinforces the idea that continued education in school is not necessary.  Fortunately, many if not most high school graduates quickly realize that good job and longer term career opportunities that require only high school acquired skills and knowledge are few and far between and they begin to adjust their perspective about going back to school.  However, this reality check on their part still does not translate to going back to school for three more years.

The education system must adjust to accommodate this student time investment constrain but also assure that program graduates will acquire Future of Work imposed skills to meet industry need. The current surge of interest in apprenticeships does suggest an interesting possibility to address both student perceptions of time in school and the education systems need to produce advanced skilled workers. For a starter, apprenticeships can begin immediately after high school graduation and high school pre-apprentice programs can shorten the post-high school apprentice time. Apprenticeships became an important vehicle for technical education at a national scale during our initial industrial revolution. That time period’s new work skills triggered the creation of plumbers, electrician, masons, carpenters, welders, etc. The need for technical professions with these "classic" skills is still great and the important role of those registered apprenticeship programs continues however, today’s Future of Work skill requirements could be addressed with the apprenticeship tool as well. The key is providing work-based learning experiences to enhance the learning that takes place in colleges.

The nation’s revised interest in apprenticeships does generate a caution. Appropriate industry support for registered apprenticeships must continue. These apprenticeships include rigorous skill expectation of the apprentice as verified with a competency-based evaluation process. However, the expansion of the apprenticeship model to include single company or small group supported apprentices will not have any constructive impact on the nation if those programs do not establish defined expected competencies supported by rigorous evaluation standards.

An outstanding adaption of the apprenticeship model that includes content rigor and extensive apprentice evaluation to address new skills needs is working very well for Toyota and other advanced technology manufacturing companies. The program that they developed is now housed at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and is called FAME (Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education). You can learn more about FAME in two recent FLATE Focus issues.  FAME’s structure outlines a cohort-based two-year technician community college degree program, a classroom modeled as a workplace, engaged employers, and includes paid part-time related work experience.

In summary, for the United States, the time students are "in school" will continue to be an issue.  Technicians are going to be expected to know more cross discipline technical skills and the mechanism to provide that education will not have the luxury of adding more time or, for that matter, courses to existing program curricula. Integrating the apprenticeship model into the "academic" education pathway is an exciting possibility. FAME's expectation of its students includes a combination of hands-on competence performance demonstrations as well as the overall expansion of the apprentices' technical knowledge, trouble shooting, and innovative thought processes via the acquisition of an A.S. degree. The FAME program has also demonstrated that this work-place learning for advanced manufacturing technicians fits into a two-year time frame.

Quickly acknowledging and affirming its repetitive characteristic, our motivation for this Future of Work Series has a twofold intent. One intent is for you the other is for us. First new technology in the workplace does generate different expectations for the technician workforce and who does the technician preparation really is important to you. In this case, a role for apprentices in the two-year college education platform.   Second, engaging everyone interested in the development of the nation's technician workforce into the conversation as to how NSF can facilitate lowering the impact of that skills gap is important to us. NSF-ATE is listening and can put its resources into action in response to what it hears. Now is the time and opportunity to speak up. Think about the ideas outlined above. Contact us. Send us your thoughts at gilbert@usf.edu.

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