The High Cost of Apprenticeship – Struggling to Train the Next Generation of Technicians

When I graduated college, I was ready to take on the world. I was a good student (translation: a total nerd) so I thought that the employers would be lining up to hire me. It never occurred to me that despite my degree and the massive practical work experience I’d gained waiting tables in the summers, that I actually had ZERO marketable skills. I couldn’t even use a fax machine. Probably couldn’t have even identified a fax machine in a line up! I couldn’t type, and I could only plod my way clumsily around Microsoft Office. (This last example shows how old I am, because I would wager that no student graduates without the ability to use Microsoft Office these days.) Since birth, I’d been told that if I went to college, I would qualify for the “good” jobs, so it was a harsh reality to learn that I wasn’t actually prepared to do anything other than be a really good student. Good luck getting paid for that!

Trade schools are slightly different than your traditional colleges and universities, because they do teach many directly marketable skills to their graduates. But because of the nature of the HVAC industry (and probably other trades too), the majority of learning must still happen on the job. So trade students end up more or less in the same boat as I was, feeling very let down that they went to school for “X” number of years, and still don’t know anything! The real knowledge comes from EXPERIENCE. Years of following in the footsteps of a seasoned journeyman, asking questions, and just having someone there to make sure you don’t fall off a ladder, electrocute yourself, start a fire or drop something heavy down ten flights of metal walkways onto someone’s head. Not that any of this has happened. Nope. Never.

Is on-the-job apprentice training a thing of the past? How will we educate our apprentices of the future?
Is on-the-job apprentice training a thing of the past? How will we educate our apprentices of the future?

In the days of yore, otherwise known as yesteryear or the Time When Everything Was Better, I’m told that it was commonplace for apprentices to be paired up with journeyman technicians every day for the purposes of learning the trade. And I’m told that customers expected this and didn’t freak out when they saw two people enter the building.

This is not true today. At least not in my world.

Customers don’t want to pay for a “second man” (even at reduced apprentice rates), so sending an apprentice to assist on a service call is no longer an option. If an install job demands two sets of hands, there is an argument that two journeymen can work faster and more efficiently than a journeyman who has to hold the hands of an apprentice all day. So if the bid is tight (and when are they ever NOT?!?), some say it makes more sense to send two journeyman to get the job done. So contractors are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place – can’t send an apprentice on service, can’t send ‘em on an install…where do you send them?

Our journeymen are aging (Sorry guys, you’re the BEST, but you’re not as young as you used to be!) and in the very competitive marketplace that contracting has become, the financial burden of training apprentices has increased to the point where it has become difficult to bear. I would like to be in this business until I’m old and gray – right now my hairdresser (who is also my sister-in-law) is laughing her face off because I’ve been gray for YEARS…I meant it figuratively, Jodie! – but I’m having difficulty envisioning the make-up of our workforce fifteen or twenty years down the road. I’m going to have to get creative. And for me, that can be dangerous, so I am open to suggestions, advice and/or big wads of money, if you’ve got them. Please comment below to share advice. For wads of money, please mail to Advance Air & Heat, 177 Bullock Rd. East Freetown, MA 02717, Attn: HVAC Chick. It’ll get to the right place. I promise.