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The Apprentice: A Tale of Life, Love and Much Else

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Guest blog post by Stacey Wagner, crossposted from the NIST Manufacturing Innovation Blog.

When I was growing up, I was fascinated by apprenticeships – really!  I was an avid reader of history, ancient and otherwise, and apprenticeships always meant adventure.  One could apprentice with Greek philosophers, British knights, Teutonic alchemists, and farmers, tradespeople and barbers (who were also doctors).  You could apprentice in a household or a business.  And once your apprenticeship was complete, you commanded respect as a trained and educated person with skills to play a useful role in society.

Apprenticeships have always been a stepping stone for both a good job and a great story.  Those tantalizing tales I read as a kid centered, mostly, on a young person’s indenture to some mysterious craftsperson and it always lead to mischief: wild chases, first-time love affairs, and messy screw-ups.  But they also led to the apprentice learning about life, love and labor – specifically the skills to be someone you weren’t before, but better.

The master-storyteller, Walt Disney, even got into the act when he produced the iconic movie, “Fantasia,” with a scene called The Sorcerers’ Apprentice, which to this day still spooks me.  There are also plenty of modern-day books about apprentices: “The Apprentice” (Lewis Libby), “The Apprentice” (Tess Gerritsen), “The Apprentice Series” (James Bryan Smith) and “Rangers Apprentice” (John Flanagan), to name just a few, and a TV show by that name as well (I know I don’t need to tell you who stars in that!). In the modern vernacular, the term sorcerers’ apprentice, was immortalized by “The Sorcerers’ Apprentice,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe written in 1797.

But in the last few decades, the term “apprentice” lost much of its luster, as the term became (wrongly) associated with uninteresting vocational work.  Additionally, some of the most successful apprenticeships were offered by unions, but with the decline of private-sector unions, there have been fewer opportunities for students to participate in apprenticeship pathways to a middle-class life.

Luckily, as in any good story, what goes around, comes around, and apprenticeships are once again becoming popular as a way to receive a work-based education. Recently the Obama Administration announced new investments in American Apprenticeship Grants, This competition, to be launched in fall 2014, will focus on partnerships to: 1) create apprenticeship models in new, high-growth fields, 2) align apprenticeships to career learning and advancement, and 3) scale existing successful apprenticeship models. The U.S. Department of Labor is hosting six industry roundtables in June 2014 for a “listening” tour.  Included in the dates is a roundtable on June 19th in Chicago on manufacturing.

The apprentice grant program will make $100 million available to partnerships of employers and employer organizations, community colleges, WIBs, non-profits, and labor and training organizations.  MEP centers – with their direct conduit to small manufacturers – are particularly encouraged to participate in this program. While the grants won’t be released until the fall, the summer would be a good time to look at the Apprenticeship Office website for more information and imagine your participation in this important initiative.  Initiatives such as these will, after time, eliminate the hole in the manufacturing talent pipeline by providing manufacturing-based training and certification.  And you can be part of that sea-change.  Believe me, it’s not sorcery that makes change happen.  It’s you.

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