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OTJ, that’s what they used to call it E-mail
Wednesday, 14 March 2018 08:12


GUEST COLUMN, Walter V. Wendler, President of West Texas A&M

That’s what they used to call it: on-the-job training. In the professional discipline of architecture, it was common for people to become architects by being an apprentice in an architectural office. After 12 years of apprenticeship, a candidate could sit for a state licensing examination—on-the-job training leading to professional certification.

Over time, a combination of formal education and apprenticeship became the norm. Currently a professional degree, typically a Master of Architecture and two years of internship experience (aka apprenticeship) followed by an examination, is required. This hand-in-glove relationship between formal education and on-the-job training is a powerful one-two punch to prepare people for productive careers in fields ranging from architecture to zoology.   Internships and apprenticeships, mandatory or voluntary, paid or unpaid, are important topics of discussion on many university campuses – including what components make internships most valuable.  

The combination of formal training with internships in contrast to a more traditional apprenticeship with little classroom exposure is growing. In 2014, President Obama wanted apprenticeships to grow 100% in five years so that by 2019 there would be 750,000 apprentices. President Trump has also authorized a $200 million increase to apprenticeship programs. This issue is nonpartisan and originates from skilled worker shortages nationwide, especially in the fields of construction, healthcare and information technology. The distinction between skilled worker and manager is diminishing. Rather than white or blue collar, light blue is becoming the destination color. 

Many college students say hands-on work is “very” satisfying. The intellectual ability to identify, diagnose and solve problems comes in many forms and is in high demand.  Inspired education and training allows students to gain experience applicable in any setting. Joseph E. Aoun, in Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, says that anyone who creates a new “thing” or process becomes invaluable in the marketplace as well as “robot-proof.”

Internships and apprenticeships create appreciation for the consequence of a hierarchy.  Organizations are not flat, pancake-like structures. Not everyone is equal. Operational workplaces have workers and decision makers functioning with different roles dispersed throughout. In addition, both up and down the chains of command, accountability and effectiveness flow in both directions. This may be the most important lesson that anyone learns in any work setting. Unlike a college classroom, which is a pancake-like structure where all students are equal and guided by a single faculty member, the workplace demands complex interdependencies. Effective leaders and workers understand this interdependency as necessary to accomplish goals. In formal educational settings, the abilities and accomplishments of an individual are typically elevated above collaboration, as they should be. This makes the combination of the workplace and the schoolhouse powerful.

The apprenticeship model, with indentured servitude mindsets embedded in history, is just that—a historical artifact. Apprentices were functionally important and produced goods or services of value. Today, too many internships rely on and count shadowing, watching and observation as “work.” Such experiences do provide insight and knowledge, but very little experience with the real responsibility for the production of goods, ideas or services; in a word—work. Room to Grow: Identifying New Frontiers for Apprenticeship, from Burning Glass Technologies reinforces the impact of apprenticeships and their contribution to individuals and industries.

Effective universities build more opportunities to incorporate on-the-job training in both apprenticeship and internship settings as a pedagogical extension of the classroom. All areas of study would benefit from a model of internship/apprenticeship that combines learning and doing. Providing enough mentors and meaningful experiences for students to bridge the gap between learning about something and working is a challenge.  

Many institutions and corporations provide unpaid internships, which seem to be a “win-win” situation. However, the model falls short because of the old adage, “You don’t value what you don’t pay for.” An unpaid worker, not to be confused with a volunteer (another subject altogether), provides questionable value to both the individual and the organization beyond networking—important for sure but not a substitute for work.   

There is little, serious argument about whether or not either of these experiences contribute to positive knowledge and insights and future employment. One study at Southwestern University showed that 13% of the students engaged in internships were more likely to find employment. One in three of the students engaged in internships were “very happy” with the experience. In the African-American and Latino student populations, over 70% of the students were so positive regarding work experiences as part of the curriculum that they believed on-the-job training should be required. These observations were from a survey of 50,000 college students and graduates.

Internships and apprenticeships have amplified value when the student is engaged in real work that depends on and grows from the classroom learning experience at the university. Benefit is chrome plated when there is tangible output from the labor. That is what people should mean when they say on-the-job training.




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