Apprenticeships May Solve Skills Gap, Spark Economy

Morning Edition has been asking business people for their one idea on how to help fix a part of the economy. Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm IDEO, talks to Steve Inskeep about his idea of reviving apprenticeships.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Of course, what people buy is often dictated by how they're feeling about the economy, not to mention whether they have a job.

As President Obama and his challengers offer jobs plans this week, we are hearing from people outside the government with specific ideas to encourage growth. Their ideas may not solve everything, but they try to take on one specific problem at a time.

And today, our economic fix comes from Tim Brown. He is the CEO of the design firm IDEO. IDEO has designed everything from Apple's first mouse to ways of improving access to clean drinking water for some of the world's poorest people. And now Tim Brown says he thinks companies should take on more young workers as apprentices.

Mr. TIM BROWN (CEO, IDEO): We've got a pretty big skills gap in this country, particular around technically focused jobs, things like software engineering and medical technicians. and we just don't have enough of those people, and we need to find a way of getting them into the workforce.

And traditionally, when we wanted to get people into jobs that have high skills, for the last several hundred years we've used this idea of apprenticeship. But it seems to have disappeared out of the conversation recently.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to think of examples. You used to have an apprentice shoemaker, or Benjamin Franklin might have been an apprentice printer and just learned the details maybe from a very young age of a particular job, spent years and years working for some senior person.

Mr. BROWN: Exactly. Stone masons, and then more recently in sort of industrial jobs, and engineering apprenticeship was used. And I think it's just as appropriate when we think of modern, technically focused jobs.

INSKEEP: How is that different from internships, which are very common today?

Mr. BROWN: Well, I think internships are really about sort of proving that you've got skills. It's about going into an organization for a very short period of time, and it's sort of a relationship with the organization - whereas apprenticeship is about acquiring skills over a longer period of time, maybe over several years. And it's often with somebody who is already deeply skilled in that job.

INSKEEP: And you might be hiring somebody who just seems like good raw material, but may have no skills at all.

Mr. BROWN: Exactly, which means you could hire younger. Maybe you're hiring before college, or maybe just after undergraduate college, rather than having to wait for somebody who's gone and got a masters or something. And it allows you to pick them earlier, work with them longer and really build those skills trough tacit learning.

I mean, there's different kinds of ways that we learn, and tacit learning is about learning through doing, versus when we go to college, it's more like explicit learning when we learn through knowledge, through theory. And apprenticeship is great for this tacit learning.

INSKEEP: You said that this might be useful in some of the most cutting-edge industries. I believe you mentioned software engineering, with which I'm sure you're quite familiar in your own business. You're saying you'd like to take on a bunch of apprentices.

Mr. BROWN: I think it's a great idea, and it's something that we'd love to explore doing more of, because here in Silicon Valley right now, there are thousands of open software engineering jobs in startups - just can't fill them, can't find the people. And if apprenticeship could start creating a stream of skilled software engineers in the future, I think it would be well worth business taking that investment.

INSKEEP: What's stopping you?

Mr. BROWN: I think we have to sort of come to a - sort of - it's like a new social contract. I mean, we have to have kids who are interested in this kind of learning. We maybe need a little bit of government support. I think tax credits perhaps would help just get something like this underway. And I think we have to make it an idea that we all share. I think it's not enough for one or two companies to do it. It needs something. We got a bit of a movement going around this.

INSKEEP: But I want to understand this. Is there a barrier? If you're a CEO, and or if a CEO is listening and is very excited by this idea, is there some legal barrier or cultural barrier to just posting an ad for apprentices?

Mr. BROWN: Not as far as I know. I mean, we don't have the same kind of strong systems around it like they do in Germany, for instance, which has a very strong apprenticeship program. You know, there are over 340 recognized trades and industries that run apprenticeship programs. More than 50 percent of under-22-year-olds go through apprenticeship programs in Germany. So they have a very, very sophisticated setup to support it. We don't have that here. of course, something like that would help.

But we do already have interesting examples. You know, for instance, when you think about what medical internships are - we call them internships, but they're really apprenticeships.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's even one more cultural challenge, here. And I'm sure that this dynamic could take effect at any number of companies. Say that I'm a worker. I've been there for a number of years. I've built up some skills. I built up a decent salary. And suddenly, you bring in this apprentice who is supposed to be trained more or less to do my job, and he's working for a lot less money. I might feel threatened by that person.

Mr. BROWN: Well, my experience is that skilled people like to pass on their training and their skills to others, and I think there's a tremendous opportunity to do more of that. And we're all smart enough to realize that we need a pipeline of skilled folks to come along. And, you know, and many of these jobs today that we're talking about, things like software engineering, people are having to work incredibly hard, because there isn't enough talent around. So, you know, I actually don't really see that as being a problem.

INSKEEP: Tim Brown, thanks very much.

Mr. BROWN: It's great to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's the CEO of IDEO, and the latest person with an idea to spur economic growth.

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