Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Passing Down Skills: Apprenticeships

Landis Valley just finished up our Harvest Days Festival, where, among other demonstrations, visitors could watch skilled tradespeople at work.  These demonstrations were stationed against a backdrop of machines both old and new that were designed to take the drudgery out of agricultural labor, freeing skilled workers for other tasks.  Some of the machines were simple and visitors had fun figuring out how they worked.  Longtime Landis Valley volunteer and retired teacher Larry Hess was in his element, answering questions about the mechanics involved and how he tweaked some things to make the machine presentable to the public.  An example of these is the candle wicking machine at right.

The newer machines brought over by local dealers Binkley & Hurst, Deere Country, Hoober’s, and Messick’s were huge and complex.  There was no figuring out the communication between sensors and GPS through the onboard computers.  Adults just looked on in awe of their size as children ran from compartment to compartment within the behemoths.  The thing is, though:  nothing is permanent and eventually these machines will need maintenance and repair, too.

This backdrop is perfect to introduce a new registered apprenticeship program sponsored by the PA Department of Agriculture (PDA).  Today, as part of the Agriculture and Food Careers Week in PA (Oct. 8-14), speakers with the PDA will roll out the Agriculture Equipment Service Technician apprenticeship at Landis Valley.  

According to the PDA’s program:  “The PDA had previously identified a short- and long-term shortage of skilled technicians in the industry and the absence of training programs for the occupation currently.  Four dealers and one original equipment manufacturer from Lancaster County subsequently formed a consortium led by the Northeast Equipment Dealers Association to form a joint apprenticeship program that was approved by the PA Apprenticeship Council in September.  Further, the apprenticeship program has developed a connection with ten high schools in Lancaster and Chester Counties which will offer a pre-apprenticeship through their existing career and technical programming so that graduates will have advance standing if they are hired as apprentices.”  

The event was from 10 a.m. to noon and provided some details of the apprenticeship and where it will help alleviate the overall workforce crisis in the agriculture and food industries and the need to stay globally competitive using technology.  Notable speakers included:  Ag Secretary Russell Redding; Deputy Secretary for Workforce Development Eileen Cipriani (PA Dept. of Labor and Industry); Neil Fellenbaum, President of the PA Association of Agriculture Educators; Landis Valley site director Jim McMahon; and many more.

A Long History of Skills Training

Apprenticeship blossomed out of a society that made things by hand and needed highly skilled workers to make shoes, nails, flatware, clothing, guns, wheels, and buildings, to name a few.  An apprentice was expected to work very hard for long hours over a period of years (seven, on average), performing important, though menial, tasks for his master.  However, in return, he got the chance to watch and learn not only his master’s techniques and tricks of the trade but, just as important, to learn how the business was run.  He also got a basic education and tools or clothing when his apprenticeship was complete.  Many apprentices completed a project that showcased their skills.

Brokered by the apprentice’s parents, the youth entered into a contract with his master and both were expected to behave properly during the course of the term.  Oftentimes, contracts stipulated that the apprentice was to refrain from gambling, fornication and/or matrimony, visiting ale houses, and spending or lending his master’s goods.  The master provided room and board to his apprentice and promised to teach him the arts and “mysteries” of the craft (which the apprentice was not so sell, either).  

There are notable examples of broken contracts.  For example, Benjamin Franklin was indentured for a 9-year term as a printing apprentice to his brother, James, and broke it early because he and his brother quarreled and James sometimes beat Ben.  Ben added, “Thinking my apprenticeship very tedious, I was continuously wishing for some opportunity of shortening it.”

Changing Training in a Changing World

With industrialization in the 19th century came a dramatic shift in labor training that continues today.  When once a worker needed years to learn to make things from start to finish, with mechanization he would only need to learn part of production process and his training ended after only a few months.  Employers stopped paying for room, clothing, and board and started paying wages on a graduated scale.  This training was not as formal as it is today, and most skilled workers immigrated to America while people learning in America mainly learned on their own by persistently watching, asking advice of co-workers, and through trial and error.

In 1911, Wisconsin was the first state to enact legislation organizing a system of apprenticeship and, importantly, required five hours of classroom instruction per week for every apprentice.  This trend continues today in states like Pennsylvania, which requires 144 classroom instruction hours, in addition to 2,000 hours on the job for registered apprentices.

On a national level, government officials and employer, educator, and labor organizations came together to form a national uniform system of apprenticeship and, in 1934, the Federal Committee on Apprenticeship (FCA) was appointed by the Secretary of Labor to recommend policy on apprenticeship in America.  It was also to make sure that apprentices were trained in current industrial codes.  This reform went a step further in 1937, when the Fitzgerald Act (aka the National Apprenticeship Law) expanded the FCA to include representation of employers, labor, and education.  This new body was called the Apprentice-Training Service and is presently the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training.  It is within the Department of Labor and currently brings employers, labor, vocational schools, state apprenticeship agencies, and other apprenticeship groups together to register and promote apprenticeship in America.  It does not, however, train apprentices.

Apprenticeships Today

Registered apprenticeships must meet minimum requirements.  Apprentices should have an equal opportunity to apply and should not be discriminated against.  They cannot start younger than 16.  They must have supervised, on the job training and a minimum of 144 of organized instruction (mostly in a classroom).  Wages must be periodically increased according to a schedule.  Employers and employees need to work cooperatively and the apprentice should be recognized when he/she has successfully completed the training.

Shorter, though unregistered, apprenticeships are available.  Notably, in 2017, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which administers Landis Valley, sponsored their 12th annual Summer Apprenticeship program in which partner companies paid students and recent graduates anywhere from $10 to $16 an hour to work at historic sites under master craftspeople and receive free training on historic construction repair skills such as brickwork and pointing, log construction, and carpentry.  It’s a great supplement to further education and looks great on a resume.

It is no secret that the United States is experiencing a skilled labor shortage.  Jobs in many sectors, such as agriculture, require a knowledge of intricate, expensive machinery and computers that is beyond what people can learn from on-the-job training and trial and error.  Apprenticeships are an investment in people and employers are increasingly turning to them to train a skilled workforce tailored to meet their needs.  Hopefully, the “arts and mysteries” taught to apprentices in this new Department of Agriculture program will inspire a new generation of agricultural innovators.

References & more information:

Here's a great article where I got most of my historical information: http://www.lni.wa.gov/TradesLicensing/Apprenticeship/About/History/