Apprenticeship Leaders Communicate Their Challenges

At the Annual Employee Benefits Conference in Boston last fall, International Foundation staff led a series of focus groups to collect direct feedback from members and provide assistance in driving strategic initiatives.

One session gathered 13 representatives who serve jointly managed training and apprenticeship funds in the construction field: trustees, coordinators, directors and other staff. These constituents communicated challenges that they are facing and shared strategies they are using to overcome these challenges.

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Challenges apprenticeship funds are facing:

  • Recruitment and retention: Representatives are struggling with recruiting and retaining their apprentices. During the recent economic downturn, funds had little work for prospective apprentices. Now that economic conditions have improved, they are struggling to fill these jobs. Particularly, funds continue to struggle with recruiting women and minorities to their trades.

[Related: Filling Skill Gaps With Aboriginal Apprenticeship Program]

  • Negative perception: Work in the trades has long faced a negative perception. Skilled trades work is often falsely characterized as dark, dirty, dangerous and unfulfilling. In addition, many high school educators and guidance counselors place a disproportionate emphasis on attending a four-year college—an educational path that is not suited for a large proportion of high school students.

[Related: Positioning Apprenticeships as a Top Career Path]

  • Communication difficulties: It is proving difficult to communicate the extensive value of a skilled trade. Time-tested apprenticeship systems provide an education to young workers that can result in a lifelong career, while leaving graduates with little to no personal debt. According to research, the average age of an apprentice is 28 years old. How can leaders close this 10-year gap after high school graduation?

[Related: Benefit Bits Video: Youth Apprenticeship]

  • Limited staff time: Many apprenticeship fund trustees serve multiple roles within the apprenticeship training, health and pension functions of their fund, splitting up their time. This often forces trustees to place less emphasis on extremely important functions.
  • Limited curriculum time: Funds also continually struggle with a lack of time in their program curriculum. Some funds have as much as 6,000 hours of trade-specific curriculum and have little time to address soft skills such as financial literacy. This type of training becomes even more important due to the seasonal work of many apprenticeship trades in the construction industry. Other important soft skills that may not be getting addressed are communication, teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking and professionalism.

Strategies for addressing these issues:

  • One fund mentioned having great recruiting success by focusing their efforts on sports talk radio ads.
  • An association in the West sets up biweekly information fairs and specifically targets young, female students. These fairs give funds the opportunity to display the skills and tools necessary for a number of trades. This program has become an extremely effective recruitment strategy.

[Related: The Best Man for the Job, Often a Woman]

  • A different association located in the Midwest meets monthly to discuss and collaborate on larger scale issues and reports quarterly to state representatives. Most recently, the association met with key stakeholders to address recruitment and retention issues.
  • Many funds are partnering with local community colleges, bringing legitimacy to their educational offerings through a state-accredited curriculum.
  • In an Eastern state, training funds pool their funds into a grant-writing service. This has proven very effective in securing grant money for a number of skilled trade apprenticeship funds.

What key issues are your training and apprenticeship funds facing? Are you finding unique and effective strategies to overcome these issues? Stay tuned for further reports and blogs pertaining to apprenticeship training and the focus group efforts at the International Foundation.

Attend the U.S. Annual Employee Benefits Conference or the Annual Canadian Employee Benefits Conference for a full track of sessions specifically for training and apprenticeship funds.

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