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California Should Revive the Apprenticeship System

Policy analysts have rushed to embrace the high-tech future for California employment. Yet, in this rush, our state’s need for quality work in low-tech jobs often has been overlooked. An important part of our employment agenda of the next few years should be the reclaiming of California’s low-tech jobs. In turn, an important part of this reclaiming will be the revival of a centuries-old system of craft and dignity in work, that of the apprenticeship. Clearly, technology employment will be a central part of California’s job strategy in the early 21st century. California firms employ 27 percent of the U.S. workforce in the computer industry, including 20 percent of U.S. employment in the software industry and 20.7 percent in high-tech manufacturing. The Employment Development Department projects continued strong growth in technology, particularly in the computer engineer and programmer jobs, which are in great need of skilled workers today. But tech employment should not be oversold. Skilled technology jobs and other skilled jobs will employ only a small number of our emerging workforce. Among this workforce will be many persons who will not possess the abilities or proclivities to do well in tech or other skilled jobs. Our state’s economy will continue to need the services provided by low-tech workers, in such areas as care for the elderly, child care and retail. Currently, our low-tech jobs often are characterized not only by low wages, but also by high turnover and little craftsmanship. Employees come and go, seeking better pay or less-demanding conditions. Companies rarely invest in upgrading workers’ skills or strategies for advancement. Reclaiming our low-tech jobs will require a variety of strategies. Chief among these is the development of new apprenticeship systems in job fields with concentrations of low-tech jobs, including health care, child care, retail sales, even agriculture. The apprenticeship concept is rooted in pre-industrial economies, in which trade skills and a trade ethos were passed along to younger workers. The apprenticeship is used today principally in the building and crafts trades. In the electrical field, for example, the electrician apprentice advances through several stages over a five-year period to become a journeyman electrician. The training includes some classroom instruction and a greater amount of on-the-job training. On the state level, we are exploring new apprenticeships in a variety of low-tech positions. We are starting with the health care field, in line with Gov. Gray Davis’ emphasis on a quality health care industry workforce. One of our first apprenticeship models involves certified nursing assistants. CNAs are responsible for the direct care of the elderly at long-term care facilities or patients at acute care facilities. Clearly, it is a critical job, and one that technology cannot replace. In fact, the industry is projecting a need for 97,000 new CNAs in California between now and January 2003. Yet employers cannot find or hold CNAs. Not only are the physical and psychological demands of the job high, but the pay is low ($7-7.50/hour), with limited pay increases and promotions. Working with health care employers, we are seeking to restructure the CNA from a standalone job to the first stage of an apprenticeship for health professionals. One starts as a CNA and learns skills on the job and through classroom instruction. Pay increases with various certifications for skills in elderly care or emergency treatment. Advancement is encouraged to higher skilled health jobs, such as licensed vocational nurse or emergency medical technician. The employers benefit from the greater workforce stability. All of us benefit from the increased professionalism among direct care staff. The apprentice is a pre-industrial model increasingly relevant to work quality and stability in our high-technology age. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, is the California Senate majority leader. Michael Bernick is director of the state Employment Development Department.

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