Apprenticeship Programs: A Solution to the Skills Problem?

By Jeanette Maister

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According to SHRM, employers are at an all-time high for difficulty finding skilled and available workers. Many job seekers, college graduates included, are leaving school without marketable skills or any work experience at all. 

The proposed solution? Apprenticeships.

“Apprenticeships hold great promise in helping American workers acquire the skills they need to get good jobs while ensuring companies can attract the talent required to succeed in this fast-moving global economy.” 
- Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta

In 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act provided federal funding for new types of apprenticeships and job training. It brought local employers, community colleges and job training programs together to identify the skills needed for nearby jobs. Most recently, this summer, the US government signed an executive order to substantially increase the number of U.S. apprenticeships from the current 500,000 (minuscule for the size of the economy) by doubling the amount the government spends on apprenticeship programs.

Today, there are over 533,000 apprenticeships available nationwide in more than 1,000 occupations across multiple industries. Plus, the average starting salary of an apprentice is $60,000, and apprentices earn $300,000 more over the course of their career!

Apprenticeships could bring the US in line with the low unemployment levels and strong manufacturing sectors in countries like Germany and Switzerland. These countries are paying high wages and are able to achieve their economic strength by prioritizing apprenticeships and other education models that integrate classroom learning with on-the-job training.

In an apprenticeship, participants are earning and learning both on and off the job. This differs from many other employment-related programs and purely classroom-based education. This typically three- or four-year endeavor allows the apprentice to acquire new skills under the watchful eyes of a trained mentor.

“Apprenticeship is the other college. It’s real-world application of the things you’re learning… I guess it’s more of in a board game where you skip ahead 4 spaces and advance to payday.”
-  Jessie Cunningham, Former Apprentice

One or two days each week are dedicated to classwork at a local community college or technical school, but no college debt is accrued. Better still, apprentices earn while they learn, and most (90%) are gainfully employed by the conclusion of their apprenticeship, according to the Department of Labor.

“One of the reasons why I didn’t go into college right away was because I knew that dealing with debt at such a young age especially can be very very stressful.”
-  Nafis Bey, Former Apprentice

How many full-time college students can say the same?

How Apprenticeships Work

Most apprenticeships are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor and sponsored by employers, trade organizations or labor unions. You’ve most likely heard of apprenticeships in more common fields like plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other roles within the construction industry, but did you know apprenticeships are available in jobs like computer programming, insurance claim adjusters and even culinary arts?

Typically apprentices are hired as contractors, combining classroom instruction with on-the-job training. The programs range in length from 1 to 6 years depending on the field, and the prerequisites are a High School Diploma or equivalent. This makes it easy for those entering the workforce to acquire skills in a specific industry so they can begin earning a living at a younger age, in addition to coming out of the program with no college debt.

Should You Implement an Apprenticeship Program?

Apprenticeships are more popular in the UK than the US, so one of the first barriers to consider is that there is not as much awareness around apprenticeships and their benefits in the US. Employers who are looking into Apprenticeship programs should know that the reduced attrition, financial tax credits and improvement to the skills gap in your talent pool are some of the greatest benefits of Apprenticeships. The return on your investment is best explained by Chief of Technology Officer, Chris Alfano, whose company has implemented Apprenticeships,

“We find that it’s a lower risk and higher loyalty way to bring employees into our company. Traditionally you’re going to spend money on marketing, you’re going to offer referral fees for people recommending employees, you’re going to expereince high turnover, you’re going to have training... And these are huge costs that often result in employees burning out and leaving your company after a few months. With apprenticeships we’re able to build working relationships with our employees before they come on board and build long term loyalty that pays off in the long run.”

How to Start an Apprenticeship Program

Before establishing an apprenticeship program, you must identify the roles within your organization that will most likely benefit. The Department of Labor suggests asking of your organization:

  • Jobs for which it is difficult to find workers with the right skills?
  • Positions with high turnover?
  • Occupations where a highly skilled workforce is retiring soon?
  • Challenges helping workers keep pace with continuing industry advances?
  • Positions requiring skills that can be learned on the job?
  • Difficulty in attracting new and more diverse talent pools?

Once you’ve determined the roles, you’ll want to collaborate with strategic partners. Employers can turn to a number of partners, such as:

  • State Apprenticeship Agencies
  • Public Workforce Systems
  • Economic Development Committees
  • Labor Organizations
  • Local Education (K-12)
  • Community Organizations
  • Foundations
  • Community Colleges

Then look for a technology partner who can serve as a strategic advisor in the management of your program and provide needed key features like:

  • Soft and simple approach to engage
  • Simple and personalized application process
  • Integration with apprentice-specific job boards
  • Surveys - Capture routine feedback and potential improvements

About Jeanette Maister:

Global talent acquisition technology leader with extensive experience in global talent acquisition, applicant tracking systems & recruiting technology, recruiting metrics and process. Deep insight into all aspects of campus recruiting strategy. Recognized for driving growth and helping clients transform their recruiting efforts.

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