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Thomas Perez: For a modern Labor Day — American apprenticeships

By Thomas Perez

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Aug. 31 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, Aug. 30 2014 10:51 p.m. MDT

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When you hear the word “apprenticeship” what comes to mind? Blacksmiths and candlestick makers? Ben Franklin apprenticed as a printer before opening a print shop of his own, and we are still reaping the benefits. George Washington apprenticed as a land surveyor before his military and political career, a fitting skill for the “father of our country.”

To be sure, apprenticeship has played a vital role in the history of our economy and our country, the foundation of our manufacturing and construction strength. But we’ve got to start thinking about apprenticeship as a critical part of our present . . . and vital to our future. And no, Donald Trump has nothing to do with this.

Today, the average starting wage for apprenticeship graduates is over $50,000 a year, and apprentices will earn an average of $300,000 more over their lifetime than their non-apprentice peers. And the benefits of apprenticeships reach all of us, and not just in better goods and services: for every taxpayer dollar invested in apprenticeship programs, we see $27 in returns.

For businesses on the cusp of growth, apprenticeships are an effective and efficient way to hire and train workers while increasing their profits.

UPS, the world's largest package delivery company, trains apprentices as delivery drivers and plans to expand their apprenticeship program to logistics, operations and automotive repair. They have committed to sending 2,000 people through their apprenticeship program by 2018. Electronics and electrical engineering powerhouse Siemens is building high speed trains using the apprenticeship model. CVS uses apprenticeship to train its pharmacy technicians. Blue Cross/Blue Shield has developed a talented IT workforce through its innovative apprenticeship program; and the Centers for Disease Control prepares MDs and PHDs in Public Health Informatics using an apprenticeship model. Here in Utah, companies like Utah Electrical JATC and Associated General Contractors both in Salt Lake City, Carpenters JATC in West Jordan, are employers of choice because of their highly successful “learn while you earn” apprenticeship programs in construction.

Some of our global neighbors have long made apprenticeship a core component of both workforce development and their economy. Germany, for example, has about 1.8 million apprentices, working with 500,000 sponsoring companies. Here in the United States, we have about 375,000 apprentices working with approximately 200,000 employers – clearly there’s room to grow our own uniquely American Apprenticeship system.

As part of his efforts to encourage our ongoing economic recovery, President Obama has set a goal of doubling the number of apprentices over the next five years. To help make that happen, this fall we’ll be announcing a $100 million grant competition to promote apprenticeships in high-growth industries. Meanwhile, through the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium, we’re making it easier to earn college credit for what you learn on the job, and to take those credits with you no matter where you live. The president has also called on Congress to create a $2 billion training fund to be used to reach his ambitious apprenticeship goals.

Labor Day is often looked on as an old fashioned holiday, and like apprenticeships, a thing of the past. Let’s look at both with fresh eyes. Labor Day is our unique moment to celebrate the contributions of the men and women who contribute to the strength and prosperity of our country. And that has and will always include our apprentices.

Thomas E. Perez is the U.S. secretary of labor.

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