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Co-ops and Apprenticeships: Bring them Back

By: Michael Bleau

Wednesday, June 01, 2011
 

Apprenticeship programs are in short supply, which some would say is a result of the economic downturn, but even before the recession these programs were being “downsized” by many manufacturers. Where do we think we will find highly skilled individuals if we are not willing to feed these channels? The money isn’t and shouldn’t be coming from Uncle Sam; the U.S. Department of Labor reports that the U.S. government provides a paltry $21 million annually to support apprenticeship programs.

Impressions from a Kettering Student

Cullen Horachek, Chemical Engineering Student

As an intern I have gained much and contributed in many respects to the company that I have worked for. I co-opted in the plastics industry and was an essential team member in many projects dealing directly with customers, product testing and research. Some of the research that I participated in has allowed the company to develop different polymer formulas suitable for the customer’s application where previously the company had no market presence. Also I worked on converting some of the impact testing machines in our lab by adding an environmental chamber that allowed the company to test at negative temperature using liquid nitrogen. This ability for the company to test materials at such low temperatures has opened up new business opportunities and eliminated the associated costs of contracting an outside company to conduct such tests.

Internship and co-op program students get real hands-on experience and learn a great deal from a term spent in the workforce. We are able to apply what we learned in the classroom while gaining a solid grasp of industry and learn its “ins” and “outs” making us feel more comfortable with the future transition to fulltime careers. A student that graduates having experienced an internship or co-op not only is able to eliminate the “lack of experience” road-block during initial hiring but also is able to more quickly contribute to the business. Such graduates already have a good idea of what is expected of them. They are able to more quickly contribute and push the boundaries of their jobs. Companies that wish to hire specific interns after they graduate have the unique opportunity to guide the student in their course of work and study. This can smooth the transition from student to employee and provide a higher probability of the student delivering immediate benefits to the company.
Being one who is not confident in our government’s ability to manage, I propose we cut this from the budget and place the responsibility squarely on business. But to do so, the business community must recognize the value and invest in creating these types of programs. The view from my glass house isn’t all that rosy; the PMA Education Foundation website lists just 22 companies, or 5 percent, as offering apprenticeship programs out of a total of 447 manufacturing members and a mere 3 percent of all 809 associate and manufacturing members. Spending on a well-structured apprenticeship program is analogous to product R&D, without which we simply stop advancing.

Internships and co-ops are plentiful, but they don’t als deliver their full potential when the program is loosely structured. At worst, the business ends up babysitting less-than-driven students who are cruising for a few months’ pay and college credit. Taking advantage of university-fueled internship programs requires a dedicated management team that interviews and selects candidates with the same vigor as if they were hiring, and then structures a position, expected deliverables and a work environment to ensure mutual gains. Co-op programs like those provided by Kettering University (Flint, MI), formerly the General Motors Institute, create an extremely productive relationship between companies and students where the long-term goal is to create well-equipped, next-generation employees. Kettering’s program has students alternate between classroom semesters and serving in co-op positions aligned with the student’s major.

Apprenticeships, co-ops and structured internship programs fuel our future workforce, but we need to make the effort today. We need to tune-up our sales pitch and appearance if we are to appeal to a younger audience. And we must work to collectively change society’s impression of manufacturing and trade-related careers. People too often have a negative association with manufacturing, and believe that taking this path is not rewarding or valued by society. Changing this mindset will take time, and we need to start at home with how we present our trade organizations, our businesses and ourselves.

With PMA being a manufacturing-centric organization, I feel that we should aspire to do better, and be an example for other industries. We can start by resurrecting skilled-trades apprenticeship programs within the manufacturing membership ranks. We must recruit young people to the metalforming industry through the PMA Educational Foundation. This should take the form of a multifaceted marketing campaign including updated content and improved presentations on its website (www.pmaef.org), and a multiple media strategy that includes mobile and social media. MF

 


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