Manufacturers: Retire the Apprenticeship

The manufacturing industry must think more progressively about how to attract the young generation, and an apprenticeship isn’t the way to do it.


Call it an internship, not an apprenticeship.

I found that message hidden in the announcement this week that 50 U.S. companies will boost their offering of engineering internships in 2012, an effort coordinated by the White House, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council, and various business groups.

The list includes 45 companies that will double their slate of internships; five others have committed simply to increasing their offerings. Among the 45 you’ll find Cardinal Health, Facebook, and MasterCard, companies that have emerged as leaders in what some call a post-manufacturing America dominated by healthcare, technology, and finance. But the preponderance of names on the list stir memories of the country’s industrial might: Alcoa, Boeing, General Electric.

I like the effort, small as it is. I also like the word “internship.” Subtle shifts in language can make a big difference—ask any marketer. An “internship” sounds contemporary. An “apprenticeship” sounds like something you find in a caption for a black and white photo in a textile museum. Manufacturers should apply a new language to all facets of their business, whether it’s someone dabbling in operations management, machine work, or research and development. You might argue that “internship” isn’t the right term for someone destined for operations management, or line work. But that’s old thinking. It’s time to rebrand.

In generations past, sons lined up for the trades their fathers had mastered, and a virtuous cycle kept manufacturing humming. The industry isn’t accustomed to fighting for its meals. But it must if it wants to survive. And it’s time the manufacturing industry became its own marketer, using language to its advantage. All levels of the manufacturing organization must think progressively. Throw away your old vocabulary. Think with a new playbook. Offer internships on the manufacturing floor. Change your apprenticeship program to a career development initiative, or a future leaders program.

If we’re intent on resuscitating manufacturing, we must first focus on destroying stereotypes and the language that gives them life. Throw away the apprenticeships of old. Rebrand manufacturing.

Tell us what you’re doing to inspire the next generation of manufacturing workers and leaders, and how you have changed the language to help.

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  1. Frank Zeigafuse
    Posted September 1, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    IMHO, and I am just a regular guy who graduated high-school and has some college. We need to do the opposite and do less internships and get back to doing apprenticeships. To me an intern is just a requirement to get your degree the employer sees it has cheap labor, I would venture to guess 95% of internships there is no career development or actually learning going. The person who is actually doing the internship I would think the best they could hope for is to Network within the industry.
    An apprenticeship in entirely different story, I see it as a deeper commitment on both sides. An actual know how learning is the goal just not completing some educational requirement. Another issue I see is Americas feeling and belief of entitlement.
    Wether we like it not everything has changed. We should be focusing on our infrastructure in addition to manufacturing back in the US.
    Also will these “Internships” be filled with H1 Visas or Americans? My guess is a good portion will be filled with H1 Visa applicants.
    I love my country, but I am very scared for our future we are to worried about hurting peoples feelings instead of dealing facts. I don’t trust most of the statistics published by our government, and I trust 0 published by China. I listed to a pod cast on NPR that they GDP is really a guess and they are still adjusting the numbers from many years ago.

  2. Posted September 2, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Frank: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. With all due respect, I believe you may have missed my point. My idea is to change our language to better suit a new era, and to attract to manufacturing young people who might otherwise ignore the industry on the assumption that it is a dinosaur. I believe wholeheartedly in the concept of apprenticeship; but I think the word “apprenticeship” only bolsters the dinosaur stereotype. That word doesn’t have resonance with today’s young people; internship does. I’m arguing for a recalibration of the language we use to describe manufacturing, not necessarily the manufacturing practices themselves. Manufacturers need to market themselves in the style of the day, and “apprenticeship” does not fit today’s style.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  3. guy bralley
    Posted September 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Chris, while I think I understand your point, I have to agree with what I think Frank is saying. Internships look good on the resume; they provide an opportunity to network and learn about the busines / industry, but significant numbers of them are not even compensated: free labor. My observations of some apprenticeship programs is that they do not get followed to completion. Requirements that the program be completed with the same company that it was begun in make it frustrating if the business climate contracts and folks are let go (prior to completion). Starting over at the next company restarts the 4 year clock at year one: not a motivational prospect. The attitude of our culture toward, for lack of a better term, trade or technical curricula is a problem. We all know folks who have come from the traditional college programs who do not function at a level commensurate with what us old guys expect. Europe’s experience with graduates of technical training systems has been excellent. The quality of the production (Switzerland, Germany, Austria, to name a few) is superb, and largely reflects the acknowledgement of the value of those in the industrial work force. As we have pursued the bottom line (led by an army of bean counters, MBA’s and suits) in so many industries, we have off-shored production to areas with cheaper touch-labor. As we are moving or have moved into the post-industrial stage, it seems that the willingness to change to vocabulary of the past somehow de-values a system that worked well: the apprenticeship. Continuous learning and improvement is a good thing, whether it is among the hands-on production guys / gals, or the management levels of the business world. The US needs to maintain its position as a leader in the R&D of electronics and aerospace (to name a few) sectors, where we do well, but not so well when we off-shore the production: the manufacturing jobs that used to be the back bone of industry in the US. If the H1 visa system exists it should be a clue as to the number (or the quality) of engineer / technical graduates from domestic sources (many are very good, but there are not enough of them). We need to fix these things, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers. Training and education are key. Making someone belive that the apprenticeship system leads to a second rate career is a dis-service to the industries that have supported it and draw their next generation of artisans from it. I find myself more comforted by the journeymen (electricians, carpenters, etc.) than those folks in Wall street and the investment banks who were more likely to have been products of the internship processes. They should all have value, and each should be recognized for the efforts of their labor. Frank gets it. Have a good Labor Day, and may we all take an opportunity to reflect on where Labor has gotten us… where we need to go, and not let the future get away (while we pursue that bottom line?).

  4. David Atchley
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    The Germans are quite proud of their Apprenticeship Programs and they seem to be the powerhouse of Europe. Name change is window dressing. It’s the quality of the program and not the name fad de jour that counts. I’ll take substance over image any day. You sure you’re not one of those Service Industry spokesman and just as soon give up on manufacturing?

  5. BOB Daverin
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    apprenticeships require a commitment from both parties and qualified instructors

  6. Doug Gyure
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I believe we are all in agreement that apprenticeships work and work very well. All that the article really is stating is a need to change the terminology. While there are many out there who are proud of their apprenticeship experience, the individuals we are trying to reach today are more likely to respond to a program called an internship, eventhough it can be an apprenticeship. The only difference being the name.

  7. Posted September 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. To press my point just a bit, I’m thinking an “apprenticeship” would be out of place at a manufacturing shop like this one:

    And I bet shops like that one have a sizable role to play in the future of American manufacturing. We may not like the job losses involved, but high-paying manufacturing jobs are better than no manufacturing jobs. And to fill those jobs, we need to start thinking about the types of people who will be attracted to them. I’m guessing they’re not the “apprenticeship” types.

  8. Dave Sanford
    Posted September 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    An apprenticeship program is a 4 – 5 year certifed commitment on that subject, not the last 1 or 2 years of a 4 year college degree and then an internship for maybe one or two summer. The apprenticeships program are in millwrights (mechanic), pumper, pipe fitters, steam fitters, sprinkler fitters, carpenters, Masonry works, Electronic, electricians, HVAC and many more, and to be a part of this program takes a lot of commitment. The on the job work (Manuel Labor) darning the day and the classes at night, on just that subject. To compare an intern to an apprentice, there is no comparison. Most college student would drop out or fail apprentice program. When you get done in most cases, you have to pass the state and/or federal exams to be certified.

    Give me the apprentice, who become a master at what they do.

    An apprentice of everything, is a master of nothing.

  9. Posted September 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad my blog has inspired some comments. I’m disappointed that my point has been lost. Here it is, more simply stated: We need to attract a new crowd to manufacturing if the industry is to thrive again. We won’t attract a new crowd with old language. “Apprenticeship” is old language.

    In short, American manufacturing has an image problem. Young people think it’s a bygone career, and don’t want to be a part of it. Manufacturing has a lot to offer them, but hasn’t made that clear.

    If you don’t want to change “apprenticeship” to “internship,” pick another word. But stop clinging to old ways and stale language.

  10. Frank Zeigafuse
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I think Manufacturing finds you in most cases. Growing up I loved playing games and was good with computers so I decided to go to school for computers but so was everyone else. I was thinking to myself how is everyone going to get a JOB in computers. Manufacturing found me, and I am glad it did.

    So maybe we should just call it on the job training or an entry level job, but it is a JOB which I think is a big thing and also really can be rewarding to people who are looking for a career and apply themselves.

    Manufacturing has always had an image problem this happened way before I was in high school which was late 80′s but to imply that it is a recent occurrence I just don’t buy that. Manufacturing was for the “shop kids” who were not going to college. Sometime after World War 2, when every had jobs, cars and single family houses there was a transition from Blue Collar to White Collar jobs.

    JOBS are over the news, well the lack of them. I think its an extremely complex issue. I think and hope that we do bring manufacturing back to the US to get some of these Jobs back, however many things need to change, here are some of my thoughts.

    #1 The main problem no one talks about on the jobs issue is where do you shop and where are the goods you purchase manufactured. Think Wall mart ( Quantity vs Quality and local source)

    #2 Companies that are not headquartered in the US or the bulk of the cash that is generated here needs to stay here in the US, somehow. Maybe a HUGE export capital gains tax or something, I really don’t know.

    #3 We need an Import Tariff on goods, services and tooling also simple rules so there are no loops holes, and also companies don’t need an army of compliance people and lawyers.

    #4 NAFTA needs to go away, if we do implement #3 all that will happen is companies will just make stuff in Mexico. I want things “MADE in USA” not “MADE in the Americas”

    #5 Chris, I think this is your point and I agree if we want to grow manufacturing we need to support and train for it. My local Manufacturing Resource Center has lost almost ALL of its funding. I think all that is needs is just for manufacturing to show there is jobs think “Build it and they will come”.

    #6 Manufacturing is reactive, its based on a lot of factors but the customer sets the expectation and requirements. I am tired of hearing about companies making decisions based solely on Greed, while this might apply sometimes I think its just really more reactionary and they are responding to customers who just want cheap stuff.

  11. Posted September 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    The marketing analogy is right.

    Internship – a year spent between university courses to get a bit of experience. It is transient. It is a “let’s see if this is a career I like.” It has a perception of being unpaid.

    An Apprenticeship – a long term commitment to developing skills and knowledge that will see the individual progress from apprentice to journeyman to master.

    Let’s bring back the old titles and terminology to reinforce the concept of learning and personal development that the apprenticeship demands.

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