Before COVID-19, it would have been rare to find a first-year electrical apprentice learning DC theory on a laptop at their kitchen table. But since the pandemic, this situation is not so unusual.
Joint Apprenticeship Training Committees (JATCs) have made numerous adaptations to minimize contact and risk for apprentices, instructors and employers. Following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidelines, they have staggered classes, required masks, reduced class sizes and modified campus common spaces and classrooms. They also have turned to electronic and virtual means to deliver knowledge and skills normally gained in the classroom and on the job.
Still, whatever new forms learning has taken, JATCs have maintained apprenticeship standards, according to Todd Stafford, executive director of the Electrical Training Alliance in Bowie, Md.
“The standards serve as a guideline, but how you carry them out on a local level is still your choice, including when it comes to using electronic or virtual instruction,” Stafford said.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship (DOL OA) recognized the value of this. To provide additional flexibility for safely meeting training goals, DOL OA left it up to individual apprentice programs to determine their own paths, rather than wanting to know how programs would transition to electronic learning and still meet standards.
That may not seem like big news, but before the pandemic, DOL OA scrutinized the use of electronic learning more closely, which made getting the official go-ahead to implement it more involved and more time-consuming.
As outlined in Bulletin 2010-13, the DOL OA Registration Agency required, in advance of approval:
An apprentice program’s rationale for going electronic or virtual
The types of electronic media being used and for what courses and purposes
How testing would be administered
Assurance to apprentices of access to necessary equipment and tools
Assurance of quality instructors
Early in the pandemic, DOL OA attempted to increase flexibility for apprentice training programs to safely deliver instruction. On March 16, 2020, Bulletin 2020-51 stipulated that, in lieu of the approval process outlined earlier, program sponsors and regional apprentice program partners were required to notify the agency within 10 business days of any changes regarding online instruction. The usual approval information outlined in Bulletin 2010-13 could wait and be supplied within 60 days.
On Dec. 16, 2020, DOL OA went further and issued the 2021-01 circular saying it rescinded those procedures in accordance with standards of apprenticeship 29 CFR 29.5(b)(4) to avoid “undue administrative burdens or procedural delays.”
Now the DOL OA Registration Agency only requires notification of a change in learning programs to electronic and virtual formats within 30 days of implementation. Notification is as simple as sending an email stating the changes. The idea is to enable apprentice programs to continue to safely meet training goals without causing significant delays.
The positive view
For the electrical contracting industry, Stafford believes the use of virtual instruction may yield advantages beyond the pandemic.
“I see many ways we can use what we’ve learned to grow further,” he said. “It may be possible to free up time previously devoted to lectures for more hands-on instruction and on-the-job training. In that sense, apprentice standards may need to be modified, but only time will tell.”
Stafford also foresees JATCs sharing online instruction with each other.
With the latest circular, DOL OA permits the use of electronic and virtual avenues for administrative functions, including recruitment, testing and interviews. This too may eventually open the door to greater reach and efficiencies for attracting and training apprentices, Stafford said.
Still, he insisted, “The hallmark of an apprenticeship program, something that distinguishes it from high school and college education, is hands-on learning and on-the-job training.” He predicted that after the pandemic, significant instruction will revert back to in-person learning.
DOL OA also considered that. New notification requirements don’t discourage apprentice programs from going back to in-person instruction, if that’s what they prefer.
Meanwhile, for JATCs converting classes to electronic and virtual learning formats, DOL OA suggests consulting resources provided by organizations such as the Distance Education Accrediting Commission and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, as well as the U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation database.