enable small firms
to grow their own
By Harvey Meyer
WHEN TY TRAN PLUGS leaky pipes as a
rookie plumber, it’s not likely he’s meditating
about George Washington or Benjamin
Franklin. Yet Tran shares a brotherhood of
sorts with those historic giants—as a small-company apprentice.
Like them, Tran hopes an apprenticeship
will help launch his career. Tran is an apprentice plumber for Shreve/McGonegal, a
26-employee Falls Church, Virginia, mechanical contractor and plumbing firm.
“I’m absolutely more productive going
through the apprenticeship program,” says
Tran. “I’m learning a lot in the classroom from
knowledgeable instructors. Then when I combine that with what I’m learning on the job
[from his mentor], it’s a big plus.”
Learning alongside an expert is the world’s
oldest form of skill development. Many
apprentices today benefit from a double-barreled approach, learning both the practical
(through on-the-job mentoring) and the theoretical (through classroom instruction).
About 450,000 apprentices are registered
with the U.S. Department of Labor, a number that has been slowly rising, says Anthony
Swoope, an administrator in the department’s Office of Apprenticeship Training.
Swoope, a Costco member, estimates that
more than 225,000 U.S. companies, mostly
small businesses, regularly engage in registered apprenticeships.
While high-skill and high-tech jobs seem
particularly suited to apprenticeships, hundreds of occupations are candidates, in industries ranging from retail, manufacturing and
communications to health care, construction
and information technology. Depending upon
the occupation, apprenticeships last between
one and six years, with the average being four.
“Many companies still aren’t aware of the
range of industries and the breadth of opportunities with apprenticeships,” says Beverly
Donati, director of the Division of Registered
Apprenticeships in Virginia, and a Costco
At MCTD, a Michigan City, Indiana,
machine shop, 10 of its 14 machinists completed apprenticeships, says president Tim
WANT TO LEARN more about an apprentice-
ship program? Consider these steps.
s Contact the U.S. Department of Labor’s
Office of Apprenticeship Training (
gov/atels_bat/) or state or local government
agencies that promote apprenticeship pro-
grams; most, or all, of them can provide useful
information about apprenticeships and facili-
tate ways to locate apprenticeship sponsors.
Also contact area vocational schools and com-
munity colleges, unions and employer associa-
tions and ask if they’re involved with appren-
ticeship programs. And talk with individual
companies about their formal or informal
s Check whether an apprenticeship program
offers recognized standards and credentials,
which indicates it is addressing safety, quality
Johnson. With many of his workers approaching retirement, he says, apprenticeships enable
the firm to “grow” their own skilled employees, an increasingly scarce commodity in
today’s globally competitive economy.
“Companies tell us they like apprenticeship programs, because they often identify
their best employees as mentors and clone
them with apprentices,” says Patricia
Morrison, the assistant director of Virginia’s
Division of Registered Apprenticeships, and a
and skills-attainment considerations. Also, can
the program be custom-designed to meet your
company’s particular needs?
s Choose a program, whether established or
one you develop yourself, that spells out the
expected roles of the apprentice, mentor and
employer. Such a written agreement might note
the expected hours of classroom instruction
and on-the-job training; pay increases commen-
surate with skills learned; provisions for a trial
period and regular evaluations; and terms for
suspending or canceling the program.
s Select the right employee. Before enrolling
someone in an apprenticeship program, first
observe the worker for several weeks or
months. Does the employee demonstrate the
aptitude, ambition and perseverance to succeed
in a skilled trade?
s Find a productive mentor or mentors who
show a knack for sharing knowledge and the