Collin Gutman of Penn Foster Discusses How to Promote the Benefits of Apprenticeships and Break Down Stigmas Around Skilled Trades
The traditional pathway to what the general public might believe to be a “good” job involves graduating high school, going to college and becoming employed upon graduation. But is this model still the best way? According to Collin Gutman, the head of skilled trades at Penn Foster, obtaining gainful employment doesn’t always involve receiving a bachelor’s degree.
“There’s 80 million Americans who are what we call middle skills, skilled trades workers,” says Collin. “And […] most of them are told by guidance counselors of society their children have to do better.”
But, Collin says, the standard of what entails a “better” job needs to be redefined. “Better can mean better within these fields. Better doesn’t mean only a four year degree,” says Collin.
Many higher ed institutions nationwide are incorporating mandatory job experience into their curriculum, including internships, co-ops or apprenticeships. Gutman says technical apprenticeships can allow people to gain new skills to enter a new field, while not putting themselves in major debt.
While the traditional educational pathway is great for a lot of people, some can’t afford, especially older learners, to go that route,” he says.
“So the earn-while-you-learn kind of apprentice or corporate upskilling model is, I think, becoming more and more fashionable as a way to […] be able to kind of upskill yourself while continuing your life. And not putting it on hold and paying your bills and the like.”
Listen in to our interview with Collin Gutman to learn more about changing perceptions of what constitutes a good job, and the evolving routes to education and employment.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times. And today we’re speaking with Collin Gutman of Penn Foster. He’s a featured speaker at the EdTech Times work and EDU event. Collin, welcome.
Collin Gutman: Thank you.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Can you start by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about Penn Foster?
Collin Gutman: Absolutely. So, I’m Collin Gutman, I’m the head of skilled trades at Penn Foster. And Penn Foster is a pretty fantastic organization that offers training to over 175,000 students all in a kind of debt-free private pay model. We believe that everybody should be able to afford bettering their lives. And we do a lot of really interesting work across a variety of sectors with our 170,000-plus students. From the high school completion institution, where those who didn’t graduate high school kind of the first time around can now complete in a self-paced, online fashion. But we also do a lot of work around career training. And that spans from accredited associate’s degrees to career certificates, career diplomas all on the consumer side.
Collin Gutman: And then with a kind of enterprise-facing context, we support career training and upskilling for employees in a variety of ways. So we can offer those career diplomas and career certificates, or we can kind of unbundle what we have and offer kind of tightly tailored narrowly focused career training programs for a variety of occupations ranging from retail and hospitality, to allied health, to the skilled trade. And we offer everything from kind of pre-apprenticeship foundational skills remediation, all the way up to kind of relatively advanced engineering concepts like you’d find toward the back end of a two year associate’s degree. And as a part of that portfolio, we provide our training to support apprenticeships. And we are the largest provider of related technical instruction for apprenticeships in the country.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Wow, that’s amazing. So, obviously. you’re national?
Collin Gutman: Yes.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Do you have a global footprint at all?
Collin Gutman: So we do have some, especially consumer-facing enrollments from across the globe. You know, we have a large Canadian division. I think we have students in 30 or 40 countries, but we are, I would say, very focused on, you know, the U.S. market especially as it comes to career training.
Hester Tinti-Kane: And so do you work with employers to create custom programs or are all of your programs already developed?
Collin Gutman: So we come to employers with a kind of default outline. Just because often employers know skills but they don’t necessarily know what that means in curriculum. But then we customize the outline for each employer. So we’ll often say, here’s what we think a good machinist looks like. Let us know what’s not relevant and what skills are missing from here. And they’ll then say, let’s strike these four modules. Do you have anything on X? Do you have anything on Y? Do you have anything on Z? So each employer will typically end up with their own kind of custom program, you know, that kind of meets their own needs. So they generally all revolve around let’s just say a pretty similar structure and a pretty similar basis.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So tell me more about your division and how you came to it. What is your background and your experience that you ended up as head of the skilled trades division?
Collin Gutman: So the skilled trades a pretty wild world. You know, I kind of call it the Wild West of education because the K12 infrastructure, the higher ed infrastructure, are all so well developed. And kind of the educational world the corporate training world has just recently started turning on to the kind of the needs of the manufacturers and electricians and those types of businesses in this country. I actually started a company about six years ago that was a tech startup called Work America. We were building kind of a LinkedIn for middle skilled jobs partnering with community colleges and trade schools. So I spent three and a half years running that startup, you know, raising Silicon Valley money and really got to know the problems of employers in this ecosystem, you know, very deeply. And the pain points they have around hiring, training etc. So as I was moving on from that, I got linked up with the Penn Foster team. And they said, you know, we have this business that exists today around workforce training and our real question is we don’t have kind of someone who is full-time focused on and who understands the market and how we can grow this.
Collin Gutman: We woke up and within ourselves we said, hey, 5,000 people are getting their related technical instruction from us. That’s the biggest of anybody the country. No one else has 5,000 apprentices. And we just kind of realized that we were, as one of our clients put it, the CIA of industrial training. Where we’re everywhere but nobody really knows about us. So we’ve been on a pretty active campaign to start saying hey we work with some brand name partners. We support scaled work. We think it’s a pretty powerful and transformative education model.
Collin Gutman: And the more we speak to people, you know, the more we hear that while the traditional educational pathway is great for a lot of people, some can’t afford, especially older learners, to go that route. So the earn-while-you-learn kind of apprentice or corporate upskilling model is, I think, becoming more and more fashionable as a way to avoid debt. You know, be able to kind of upskill yourself while continuing your life and not putting it on hold and paying your bills and the like.
Hester Tinti-Kane: I’d like to talk a little bit more about the occupational pathways and the work that you’re doing in that area. And I do wonder I mean in this sort of like a college prep kind of a world especially in high schools. So how do we work with, you know, our K12 partners, let’s say, and all of the families with the young people who are in secondary school right now. How do we introduce them to the idea of occupational pathways?
Collin Gutman: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And it’s one that a lot of local communities are doing fairly well. And it’s one that a couple of the national associations are starting to do well. You know, I think when you look at the skills gap especially in manufacturing related trades or the traditional quote unquote trade. The biggest problem is one of perception, right? And that everything should be an office job that’s a good job. Everything should require a four year diploma. That’s the one version of the American dream.
Collin Gutman: And I think it’s really about just changing the perception that a career in manufacturing is an unrewarding, low paying, low mobility job that’s not good enough for your child or my child. It’s that these are jobs that have high career mobility, are highly in demand, pay extremely well and can kind of lead to career growth. I really think changing the perception. And it starts really at the guidance counselor level and the parent level.
Collin Gutman: There’s 80 million Americans who are what we call middle skills skilled trades workers. And the fact that, you know, most of them are told by guidance counselors of society their children have to do better. You know, I think just changing those 80 million American minds to say, better can mean better within these fields. Better doesn’t mean only a four year degree. Certainly there are some people who do better by getting a four year degree. But there are some people who can have a better life than their parents simply by getting a two year degree, some career training, an apprenticeship etc. And just kind of being on that path from an earlier age with, you know, talent and upside and conviction.
Collin Gutman: If you find someone as a 35-year-old TNT machinist and you say, tell me about your career path. You know, they started on a line or as a machine operator. They worked their way up. Now they’re a machinist. Next comes programmer. You know, they’re talking about earning over $100,000 for years of their life, long periods without any debt.
Collin Gutman: It’s a phenomenal career path that, you know, a lot of 20, 22, 24 year olds who I meet who are in our programs are pretty excited. You know, they say, “my friend graduated, is looking for a job, has some debt. And look at me, I’m already making, you know, upper five figures and I’ll attract either management or you know programmer or supervisor, whatever it might be.” Again, this is all not to say four year degrees aren’t great. There’s a lot of people for whom they do great. But it’s just to say that the perception that’s the only way is just, it’s simply not right.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So you’ve mentioned apprenticeships a couple of times. Can you tell me a little bit about what the Penn Foster apprenticeship programs look like?
Collin Gutman: To take a very simple example that’s an oversimplification. But, let’s say in four years from now, in order to be a construction technician, I need to know how to do four things. I need to know how to hammer a nail. I need to know how to saw a board of wood. I need to know how to glue two boards of wood together. And then I need to know how to stand it up. Well, there’s four years of curriculum. Year One is hammering a nail. Year two is sawing a board in half. Year three is gluing boards together. And year four is standing up two boards. So year one, you’ll take a minimum of 144 hours of training. That can be in person at a community college, that can be on site, that can be online with Penn Foster, however you want.
Collin Gutman: And that’s really what we think is great, is that for busy working adults they can set their own schedule by doing it online. And then at the same time, you’ll work a normal 2,000 hours a year, and those 2,000 hours, you’ll be doing things like holding the boards while people nail them together. You’ll be, you know, holding the hammer. You’ll be kind of helping change tools. And then by the end of year four, you’ve now studied at least 576 hours related to your trade. You’ve worked 8,000 hours in it. There are related kind of, you know, two pieces of the puzzle. And at the end of it you’ve got somebody who should be able to do that job pretty well. You know, in the end it’s again specific to that environment, but general enough that it has all the theoretical skills you need to be portable.
Collin Gutman: So that’s what’s really powerful about an apprenticeship, it’s you’re talking about as someone who’s working 2,000 hours a year, getting paid for those 2000 hours a year. But at the same time they’re kind of improving their skill set both on the job and on their own time in a kind of learning environment. So the employers are getting in demand talent. And the employee is getting paid today while building their wages for the future. It’s almost kind of like a win win win win, right? There’s two wins on both sides. We see this is a really powerful transformative model, for again, the large segment of Americans who can’t afford to take, you know, four years off either at 18 or maybe they’re 28 now. They just went to work and now they want a better life. This is a great option for people who can’t take two, four years off from earning, but who do want a better life.
Hester Tinti-Kane: I don’t know if you have this data handy, but it’d be interesting to know how many people of a nontraditional age, of an older age are starting to get into apprenticeships now. You think traditionally it’s somebody, you know, of a younger age coming right into the workplace for the first time.
Collin Gutman: Yes, so I will say that the overwhelming majority of our students, well above 80 percent, are nontraditional in the apprenticeship world. So if you went to all of our customers and said, “how old are your apprentices?” 80 percent of them plus would be over the age of 25. And when we looked at one of our programs with one of our clients. It’s a well-known, you know, major company that we would all know, and we look at who’s entering the pre-apprentice program that we run with them. I think it was one-third are under 35. One-third are 35 to 44. And one-third are 45 and up. And while there may be some specifics of that company that make it skew a little bit older than normal. That distribution is not uncommon where an apprentice program you and I might traditionally associate with the very youngest, you know, people coming right out of high school. But really it’s just kind of a term for an upskilling program or a promotion program, right? Or a kind of career shift program.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So one other thing is you’re talking about the online learning focus with Penn Foster. Can you tell me is everything online or do you also have a face to face learning?
Collin Gutman: So we don’t have any physical classrooms. So in that sense, you know, everything that we provide is online. Having said that, I would never say you could become a welder purely online or a machinist is purely online. And that’s where the employer and the apprenticeship model comes in so kind of complimentary, right? If anyone said, “Hey, I want to set up a Penn Foster welder program where I never have to see the people.” I would say, that “that’s never going to happen.” You have to have on the job experience in order to become a welder. But you don’t have to get that on your own. So what happens is people spend their 144 hours a year online learning: hey what types of welding torches are there? What welding techniques are there?
Collin Gutman: And then that way when they sit down and you know they spent 500 of their first 2,000 hours watching someone weld. They sit down, they say, “Hey, I’ve learned what type of torch, what type of welds, what technique, when to open the canister, where to point it. I’ve watched someone do it. Now I’m ready to try it myself.” And then they fire it up and, you know, they do, you know, as well as the first timer could, but at least they’re prepared to do that, right? You really in order to make these positions work, you really need to combine industry and education. Because education can’t produce a welder on its own. But industry really struggles to produce a welder because they only know the hands on aspect. For them to develop curriculum is very far outside their wheelhouse. It’s so important to have the employer, the supervisor, and the educator all kind of working hand in hand.
Hester Tinti-Kane: How long on average do the programs in the skills trade division take?
Collin Gutman: So they’re typically three to four years. And that’s generally because that’s the state requirement. They can be as short as a year, and we have plenty of programs that are two years. Ironically, one of our shortest programs is a two year program. But it’s actually our longest program in terms of hours. So there is a company California Steel, in Southern California, that is gung ho about training their employees. Almost everybody at their factory has come through the Penn Foster program. They pretty much don’t hire, except very rarely, without going through a program like ours. So they’ll have people run through 1,400 hours over two years of theoretical training. And they’ll say, “Hey we get it, that’s 700 hours, it’s 15 a week. We’ll give you a couple hours on the job. But if you really want to get promoted, and you really want to thrive here, we expect you to work your 40 hours on site and then go take 10 hours off site.” But, you know, like I said, if we’re talking 144 hours or four years, it’s under three hours a week. It’s not the biggest time commitment in the world to be able to get into a better career rather than, you know, 20, 30 hours a week of full time college for two or four years. So I would say most programs are three to four years.
Collin Gutman: But they can go as short as two years. They can go as short as one year. Pre-apprenticeships are six months. And the amount of time a week can be anywhere between 3 and 10 hours. It’s really based on the motivation level of the employers and the students. And believe me even those 10 hours a week people are sometimes finishing ahead of time. We have a client called a A West in Georgia that’s an electrical contractor. And they say very frequently people are ahead of their studies as compared to their work hours, just because they want to get through things as quickly as they can. And if they pick up, you know, a little bit of extra in terms of shifts and get 8,000 hours done in three and a half years they want to have the bookwork done too.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Right. And finally, at the beginning of the interview you were talking about the affordability of Penn Foster’s. And throughout you’re talking about learning and earning. So is there always an employer involved, or do you have students pay Penn Foster directly for their educational programs?
Collin Gutman: So in the apprenticeship context, and for most of our skilled trade stuff, it’s employer paid. Within the Penn Foster portfolio, we have, you know, let’s say, a medical coding and billing certificate that a consumer can sign up for. And they can pay at a rate of something like, you know, 50 dollars a month. And it’s a very affordable kind of pay as you go model. It really depends what we think you need to be successful in the field. Whether we allow you to take it as a self-motivated individual who signs up under an affordable program, versus someone who really needs to do it under an employer’s umbrella.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Thanks so much for this interview, for all of this information Collin. I really have learned a lot. We’re really looking forward to hearing you speak at Work+EDU as part of our advanced manufacturing panel.
Collin Gutman: Yeah, I’m very excited about it. It should be a lot of fun. Thank you.
This podcast episode is sponsored by Woz U. Steve Wozniak changed the world when he invented the personal computer, and now he’s doing it again with education. Founded by Steve Wozniak, Woz U is educating America’s tech force in software development, cyber security, and data science online and on campus.
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Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.