On Monday this week, my Kentucky Community and Technical College System newsletter carried a story from Inside Higher Education entitled "University Training in the Skilled Trades" by Elizabeth Redden.
West Virginia University recognizing from their own difficulties in hiring skill trades workers (including carpenters, electricians, heating, ventilation and air conditioning mechanics, and plumbers) decided to create their own four year "apprenticeship program [that] pairs each apprentice with a mentor, and includes 1,600 hours of on-the-job training per-year and 145 annual hours of classroom training (to be conducted through a combination of classes at a local technical college, distance education and instruction from West Virginia staff)." Redden points out that West Virginia is hardly alone in this, "the University of Virginia...just celebrated its 25th anniversary for its apprenticeship program in July ."
Many colleges across the country are facing difficulties in recruiting and hiring skilled trades workers, a situation, likely to increase as large numbers of skill workers move into retirement in the next decade.
The key element of the programs that Redden discusses is the apprenticeship. The lack of apprenticeship opportunities is one of the major stumbling bottlenecks in the development of a new generation of skilled workers, as there must be employers willing to employ apprentices and provide appropriate supervision for them over a period of several years.
While most Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges provide training for electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and HVAC workers, only one college in the system -- Jefferson CTC -- has apprenticeship programs and only in carpentry and millwright work. Other KCTCS programs appear to stop short of apprenticeship, providing at most preparation for the journeyman examinations such as in plumbing.
Skilled trades jobs will never be outsourced to India or China. They require workers to be physically present. There will always be a need for carpenters, millwrights, plumbers, electricians, masons and bricklayers, gardeners and landscape specialists, and auto repair workers in the American economy. Yet Kentucky community and technical colleges seem to be more interested in producing exactly the kind of worker whose job will be outsourced -- the digital worker. Certainly every 21st century worker, including or even perhaps especially those in the skilled trades, needs to be technologically savvy and have strong computer skills. But it is a serious mistake to focus on the kinds of technology (e.g., programming) and office (e.g., medical transcript) jobs that are already being outsourced to India.
The allied health professions are a focus of Kentucky community and technical colleges, and appropriately so. Nursing, radiography (unlike radiology), and respiratory therapy cannot be outsourced. These health care workers have to be physically present with the patient, wherever that patient may be.
The skilled trades do not hold the allure and status of allied health professions, but they do promise as good or better job opportunities, and should not be overlooked. More energy needs to be invested in developing business partnerships and apprenticeship opportunities in the skilled trades. Why let universities (like West Virginia and Virginia) take over the historical mission of community and technical colleges? Community colleges in other states (such as Michigan and Wisconsin) have far more extensive apprenticeship programs. KCTCS wants to be the very best community college system in the nation, here's an opportunity!