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The Value of Apprenticeships

I’m not much of a “Star Wars” fan, but I’ve never forgotten one of Yoda’s statements: “Always two there are; no more, no less. A master and an apprentice.”

The U.S. Department of Labor defines an apprenticeship as a combination of on-the-job training and classroom instruction under the supervision of a qualified trainer or journey-level professional, during which the apprentice learns the theory and practical aspects of a specific type of work. In the electric utility industry, apprentices learn the theory and practical aspects of line work.

Apprenticeship Pros
As with anything, apprenticeships have their pros and cons. I’m always curious about the value of something versus its downsides. Some people call this return on investment, or ROI.

So, what are some of the pros of apprenticeships for apprentices? Exposure, experience, practice and increased productivity are among the benefits that these workers can discover.

In a training atmosphere, apprentices gain exposure to job tasks before they find themselves in potentially hazardous work-site situations that could cause them harm or injury.

The apprentice also gains experience from being able to perform work and get involved in tasks without being exposed to the risks normally found on a job site. Learning from the ground up – literally, unless underground work is the focus – helps to create a focused apprentice. 

Each task that an apprentice undertakes can be practiced until the apprentice can do it correctly. For apprentices engaged in on-the-job training, the environment does create some challenges, but the training can be effectively accomplished. Plus, conducting on-the-job training with an apprentice provides an extra set of hands needed in most work-site situations. This way, the apprentice can contribute to the job while continuing to learn.

For those who train apprentices – and for their companies as a whole – the benefits of an apprenticeship program can include greater employee retention and the continuous development of safe work behaviors and procedures.

A great number of apprentices will choose to stay with a company that has invested time and resources into training them; this investment helps to instill a sense of loyalty in apprentices. In fact, to this day I remember my first-ever foreman, who spent time training me 40 years ago. At the time, you could not have offered me enough money to leave that guy.

Continuously developing safe work behaviors and procedures is another important aspect of training apprentices. Trainers must work closely with apprentices to ensure they’re learning to do the work safely and accurately. Trainers also must ensure they’re teaching safe behaviors to apprentices. In time, trainers who do a good job help add to the workforce highly skilled employees who care about doing things the right, safe way.

Apprenticeship Challenges
Now that we’ve reviewed some of the pros of apprenticeships, let’s take a look at some of the challenges they can present. For example, apprentices may find that their work is time intensive, that they must start from the bottom and work their way up, and that typically there are no immediate rewards for all the time and effort they expend on their work.

It has been my experience that some of today’s working youth expect a short return on their investment of time and energy, have a short attention span and lack the patience it takes to spend six to seven years becoming a journey worker. But the fact is, experience cannot be achieved overnight, lineworker tasks at a job site may need to be altered to accommodate a newly discovered hazard, and – regardless of the length of time someone has worked in the industry – that person will never know everything and will learn something new every day. I’ve been in the business for four decades and I’m still learning.

For utilities and their trainers, some of the challenges that apprenticeships present include the upfront investment, the risk of hiring inexperienced employees and the time-intensive training required. It’s important for trainers to observe apprentices and determine early on whether an apprentice has a strong work ethic. It’s also helpful if a trainer can reasonably understand the apprentice’s personality early in the apprenticeship. In addition, because a new apprentice is inexperienced and has a lack of hazard awareness, trainers must accept the risk that an apprentice may not follow instructions, or that they may follow instructions but still make errors. Apprentices require an investment of time so they can learn to safely and accurately perform the work.

So, now that we’ve looked at the pros and cons, what exactly is the value of apprenticeship? In a nutshell, there are some challenges, but overall an apprenticeship can be quite rewarding for all parties involved if everyone puts their best foot forward. There are apprentices I trained years ago who are still in the business and call me from time to time just to chat. I always ask if they are still learning to work safely. That’s because, when it comes to any electric utility working environment, you must consider these questions: What is the risk of not properly training your apprentices? What is the risk of not consistently reinforcing that they must stay on their toes because they work in an ever-changing industry? Just read the OSHA incident reports. We are still experiencing fatalities in our line of work, something that makes this old lineworker really sad. 

About the Author: Tony Boyd, CUSP, is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction (

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