October 5, 2023
Apprenticeships are frequently mentioned as the key to rebuilding America’s manufacturing sector. The people who usually say this often have limited knowledge of the apprentice system — and even less of manufacturing itself. It would take a decade of blogs to correct their misunderstandings, and no one has the attention span for that anymore — including me. Besides, by all measures — excepting number of employees and annual volume of business when adjusted for inflation — manufacturing is doing quite well. Packard, a respected automobile brand before World War II, used to say, “Ask the man who owns one.” With regard to apprenticeships, I wish the politicians and pundits would do the same. Since they seem to be avoiding contact with the general public these days, I will give them some insight into apprenticeships and manufacturing based upon my own experience. I “did my time” at a wonderful old-line firm with over thirty trades and more than a hundred apprentices in a work force of 2,500. Drafting was pretty low on the totem pole, so we were the people assigned any oddball tasks that came along — the logic being that we didn’t need more hours on the drafting board. This was fine with me. As part of my “training” I gave plant tours; delivered Christmas hams; ran errands; audited purchase orders; and expedited parts for Mr. Falk’s sailboat. Looking back, these diversions made me comfortable dealing with people. Whenever there was an “experiment” to do in the shop, or so it seemed — I got the call. No bake cores and Styrofoam patterns — I was there. A new “laundry” to wash foundry sand? Who better than a drafting kid to climb six stories of caged ladder to get samples from the overhead belt? The actual drafting work was pretty simple; the engineering technician classes at the Milwaukee Area Technical College less so. Night classes at Marquette were easier than some of the lessons at “Vocational School.” The advent of computer-aided drafting revolutionized the trade and in a matter of ten years drafting ranks thinned dramatically. I can understand why some of my contemporaries might be bitter over mastering a trade that so quickly discarded them. And that is an important lesson for anyone who thinks apprenticeships will “solve” our manufacturing “crisis.” Do not train people to do a job that technology will soon transform. Being a machinist or patternmaker or gear cutter is much different than it was forty years ago as well — but the principles are the same. Apprenticeships walk a fine line between educating and training. I use many things I learned from mine, just not the elements you would expect. Teach your people to think, to understand both the process and the objective. In that way the technology that revolutionizes their trade can be one in which they can survive and adapt.