More to 'The Apprentice' than a TV show

On-the-job-training is making a comeback, with 63,000 completing programs this year - up 68 percent from 2000.

With the mills shutting down all around him, job security seemed a taunting anachronism to Jake McGee.

Too broke for college, Mr. McGee tried his hand at a few odd jobs down at Myrtle Beach, S.C.,but came back to Rockingham, N.C., to join a once-derided practice that is regaining its standing as a hot job-training tool: the apprenticeship.

"After four years you'll be kicking on pretty good," says McGee, now a superintendent of 14 journeymen in a 20,000-customer electric co-op. "What's more, someone can't just walk in off the street and replace you."

Promising high wages, longevity, and a fraternal spirit, apprenticeships - rookies attaching themselves to experts to learn the "mystery and skill" of various professional trades - are growing in popularity as the nation looks for the next generation of workers to build its homes, run its dams, maintain its electric grids, and provide care for aging baby boomers.

With a recognition that it takes cables as well as ideas to run a nation, the quiet shift toward the apprentice model may also mark a change in how American workers view the arc of their education.

"The mindset that everyone has to have that four-year degree before entering the workforce has been prevalent for a long time, but in fact it's not accurate at this point," says Tim Eldridge, assistant director at the state's Apprenticeship and Training Bureau in Raleigh. "Instead, 70 percent of workers need some sort of postsecondary technical skills training, which lends itself to apprenticeships."

In North Carolina, the trend has been particularly noteworthy, as the state went from 8,000 certified apprentices in 2000 to more than 22,000 today - a 275 percent increase. Moreover, while American workers completed just 43,000 apprenticeships in 2000, they completed more than 63,000 this year - a 68 percent jump.

In "right-to-work" states such as North Carolina, the relative absence of unions have left a gap that apprenticeships have begun to fill in trades ranging from journeymen electricians to construction workers. In parts of the country where unions remain strong, it's not as much traditional union pipefitters as much as early childhood specialists and biotech workers who are signing up for government-certified apprenticeships, labor experts say.

"There's a stronger argument for expansion of apprenticeship programs today than 20 years ago," says Bob Thornton, a labor economist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Spanning from Dickens's Pip to Trump's "Apprentice," apprenticeships waned with industrialization. To many, the apprenticeship came to represent a link to a discriminatory system of paternal control on the order of slavery.

"Apprenticeship does have insidious roots," says Karin Zipf, a history professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. "But, of course, apprenticeship programs today are contracts between adults," not between masters and servants.

President Clinton talked about a new focus on apprenticeships at the beginning of his tenure, but by the end of his second term the word had dropped off the political radar. The Bush administration has tried to expand apprenticeships into new sectors of the economy, including IT and biotech, but federal help is minimal: about $100 per apprentice.

Still, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Indiana - and a dozen other states - are pushing forward with new programs, often in conjunction with industry associations.

Compared with centralized Europe, "we have a very odd system," says Bob Lerman, a labor economist at American University in Washington. Other countries, notably Germany, Britain, and Australia, have more advanced and embedded apprenticeship programs. Yet the American model has in most cases been proven to produce excellent workers. A recent study showed that American auto mechanics, often graduates of some sort of apprenticeship, routinely outperformed their counterparts around the world.

In some industries, like the electric industry, there's a particular urgency: 70 percent of lineworkers across the US will retire in the next five years.

So Kim Williams, apprenticeship supervisor at Pee Dee Electric, is on the lookout for potential recruits. "You need someone who is a good, tough guy and likes to work," says Ms. Williams.

Job-seekers, too, may be sensing where the money is. Getting quickly up to $40 to $60 an hour - with the possibility of six raises in the first three years - is not uncommon for apprenticed trades.

Apprenticeship recruiters note that even college graduates are signing up.

Like many in his generation, McGee, the lineman supervisor, dreamed of leaving his hometown for college, a nice-paying job, and maybe a life in the big city. But Plan B has worked out quite well. "There's a lot of people like me out there, who can't afford college and who are looking for a way to learn a trade and get paid while doing it," he says.

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