Skilled Trades and Workforce Development in the U.S.

Posted by Bill Pollock on Feb 27, 2019, 8:00:00 AM

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Unemployment is down, manufacturing is up, and the demand for skilled trades hasn’t been this high for a long time.  There is a gap between demand and the available skilled workforce.  This is true in many trades.  One example is electricians.  According to numbers from the National Electrical Contractors Association, 7,000 electricians join the field each year, while at the same time 10,000 retire. 

At Optimation in Rochester, NY, we employ tradesmen in seven industrial trades.  During the past year we have experienced the shortages and for the reasons just stated.  The rate of retirement from our crew has been high.  An effective way we fill the gap, in addition to recruiting from the ranks of competitors, is to hire and train apprentices.  We’ve operated our apprenticeship program for a decade.  NYS Certified apprenticeships take four or five years to complete.  So far, we have 20 graduates and another 20 enrolled. 

We aren’t the only ones filling the skilled trades gap with apprentices.  According to the United States Department of Labor, the number of active apprentices has increased dramatically in the past five years.  There was a lull early in the decade but by 2014 170,000 new candidates entered an active apprenticeship program, and by 2017 this had risen to 190,000.  Since 2014 nearly 2,000 new apprenticeship programs have been established nationally.

Mike Rowe, renowned for his championship of apprenticeships and of dirty jobs, says it well.  “A robust apprenticeship program is a statement of what we value as a society. So too, is the absence of one.  It’s easy to forget that the dignity of work has little to do with the actual job, and everything to do with the skills needed to perform it. We simply have to get back to teaching those skills. And there’s no better way to do that than through an apprenticeship program.”  

“A robust apprenticeship program is a statement of what we value as a society. So too, is the absence of one.  It’s easy to forget that the dignity of work has little to do with the actual job, and everything to do with the skills needed to perform it. We simply have to get back to teaching those skills. And there’s no better way to do that than through an apprenticeship program.” 

-- Mike Rowe

New York, where we live and work, has lagged the national pace for apprentices.  In New York there are only 17,000 active apprentices in a work force of over nine million.  And an even more disproportionately small number are in the New York City area where a high percentage of the employment opportunities are.  There are several reasons why apprenticeships have been relatively slow to gain momentum in New York, a primary one is government overreach and overly cumbersome state mandates and regulations. 

In spite of the challenges, there are new apprenticeship programs and an increase in the number of apprentices in New York.  One such program is the one run by the Rochester Technology Manufacturing Association (RTMA). Members, and non-members, of the association can hire apprentices and have them be part of this certified program.  The RTMA takes care of all the state mandates and bureaucracy and the employer can simply provide the hands-on training for their apprentice.  Presently, the program is coordinating certification for 30 apprentices and plans to expand this to 60 in the next twelve months. 

Apprenticeship is a great step for a good financial future.  Just how much money can a certified journeyman earn?  According to the USDOL, the average wage for a fully-proficient skilled worker, who has completed an apprenticeship, is over fifty thousand dollars a year. Apprentices who finish a program, and become a certified journeyman, earn approximately $300,000 more during their career than non-apprenticeship workers.

Do you know a young person looking for a career?  Encourage them to learn a trade!

Topics: About Optimation, Skilled Trades

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The goal of this blog is to be helpful to readers by providing useful information about applications in industrial engineering, design and skilled trades, as well as industry knowledge. We're passionate about manufacturing in the United States. We have a little fun with it too.  

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