By James Mitchell

“Apprentice” might bring to mind, for some, sepia-tinted images of young laborers toiling in a sweat shop.

But the reality is far from that image, say college program coordinators. It’s a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on experience; and remains the most effective means of training a workforce.

Still, there are misperceptions of just what an apprenticeship means – and of it’s worth.

“People are brainwashed that the only career path is the four-year degree,” said Oakland Community College Apprenticeship Coordinator Janene Erne. “Real learning takes place in the real world.”

Manufacturing has long known the benefits of putting entry-level workers on the clock for actual experience, and Erne said the model applies no matter the industry. Apprentices at OCC include an increasing number enrolled in health care or IT-related fields. Erne said the diversification beyond manufacturing was, in part, borne out of necessity during the recession.

“During the downturn they adjusted the focus to include other fields,” Erne said. What works with apprenticeships is that some things haven’t changed. “The process is the same fundamentally. The course names have changed but the curriculum’s the same as it was in the early 2000s.”

The four-year-degree myth as the only path may overlook the more immediate need for practical experience. James Robinson, provost of workforce development for Wayne County Community College District, said the various certifications offered at the school fills shorter-term needs for employers while still providing credible experience.

“Degrees and certificates are both important, it’s not an either-or,” Robinson said. The school’s advanced manufacturing program, IT courses and on-the-job training models provide experience and education that’s well regarded by employers.

“Employers need a workforce that carries certification,” Robinson said. “We collaborate with the community so students have practical experience in addition to the education training.”

Colleges and businesses have both experienced a change in workforce demographics. Robinson said that employers need a pipeline of people either re-training in their field or launching a second career. Macomb Community College Apprentice Coordinator Victoria Gordon said that recession-era layoffs inspired a new definition of students at the college’s Applied Technologies Apprenticeship program.

“We’re seeing not only the younger students but, more often than not, older employees making a second go of a career,” Gordon said. “They’re reentering the workforce in a different capacity into their 30s and 40s, and more women, too. Not as many as people would like to see, but more than were traditionally interested.”

Gordon said the concept – what the Department of Labor called “the other four-year degree when it announced in December $100 million grants for apprenticeship programs – has proven itself for a new century among both employers and potential workers.

“It’s not your grandfather’s apprenticeship,” Gordon said. “People are taking it seriously and realizing that, if it works for other guys it can work for them as well.”

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