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Not Your Grandfather’s Apprenticeship

Nov 16th, 2017

This week is National Apprenticeship Week, a time to celebrate the role of apprenticeships in developing an educated and skilled American workforce, and a time to rethink how we use apprenticeships to train the next generation of workers. Apprenticeships are of course a longstanding method of career training. They typically bring to mind old-style images of blacksmiths or craftsmen, but it is important to remember that apprenticeships were once the primary means of training in almost every profession, from the medical field to the local carpenter.

With limited access to higher education, all professionals relied on mentors and work experience to learn their craft.  Over time access to formal education grew, standards of education and training evolved, and certain industries became more professionalized.

This change precipitated a shift from apprenticeships as the best means of training toward a standard higher education model in many professions.  As a result, in today’s world, apprentices are often associated with blue-collar fields like construction or plumbing, which need training but may not need a four year degree to do the job well.

But as the skills gap in the US widens, concerns about college costs grow, and student debt and economic inequality deepen, it is time to rethink our point of view on apprenticeships.   Can apprenticeships help propel more workers into good-paying jobs in traditionally white-collar sectors like technology and financial services by providing them with the skills and experiences needed to do these jobs? Why can’t apprenticeships be more closely coupled with a college degree to give both in-depth knowledge of the subject matter needed and the practical application of that theory learned in a classroom?  Shouldn’t we envision a program where work experience adds value to blue-collar and white-collar professions in equal measure?

Employers in every sector of the US economy are concerned that they don’t have the skills they need to move their particular business or industry forward.  From hospital administrators to technology companies, from construction companies to sales hiring managers, all sectors struggle to find employees with the requisite skills and training to fill needed positions.

At the recent New America Foundation event “Tech Apprenticeship: An Old-World Solution for Workforce Challenges in the Information Age,” panelists were in clear agreement that apprenticeships can be a solution (or a “skills gap compromise,” as Brent Parton, New America’s Deputy Director of the Center on Education and Skills, put it), to this growing skills gap issue. However, as the panelists pointed out, it will take buy in from new industries, and a commitment from employers before apprenticeships can be a scalable remedy to connect large numbers of American employers with trained workers.

Apprenticeship programs in the US have grown in recent years but are still small in number, especially compared to other industrialized countries where such programs are mainstream. In Switzerland, for example, 70 percent of students participate in apprenticeship programs staring in high school and business leaders see these programs as a crucial way to train all employees for future success.

Private sector buy-in is vital to expand apprenticeship training in the US.  Often private sector employers are still seeking job candidates with bachelor’s or advanced degrees as a matter of habit — not because traditional college-goers are the only ones with the needed skills, but as a somewhat arbitrary threshold and a way of weeding out candidates. As New America panelist Debbie Hughes, VP for Higher Education and Workforce at the Business-Higher Education Forum, pointed out, employers are often just following the government’s lead when they write job descriptions. And Marian Merritt, Lead for Industry Engagement at the Department of Commerce’s National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, explained that when you ask employers why they wrote their job descriptions this way, the response is typically ‘this is how we’ve always done it’.

A BA is a minimum, but what if an employer was willing to hire and train someone through an apprenticeship while they worked toward their degree? That employee would likely be more engaged with the company and better trained by the time they got their degree than a newly minted college graduate.

That was the assumption Aon Insurance had when they recently launched an apprenticeship program. When launching the program they revaluated many of their entry level positions and found that many didn’t actually require a BA to get the job done.  With the belief that, with the right training, an apprenticeship could teach the skills needed to do certain jobs, Aon hired 25 students into their first cohort of apprentices in HR, IT and insurance business.  Aon not only pays them salary and benefits, but pays for their tuition at a local college.  When the students complete their associate’s degree, these students will be offered a full-time position at Aon.  Aon believes that the return on this investment will come from better retention and loyalty from these 25 employees. It is that kind of creative thinking and commitment that we need to see from more companies across the country.

However, as Aon would likely attest, setting up a program like this takes a tremendous time commitment from employers. Coming to consensus on the skills that need to be imparted to an apprentice, documenting them and dealing with the US registered apprenticeship system all require companies to commit time, money and man hours. For some small and medium-sized companies, that’s simply too much of a drain on resources.

That’s why the New America panel strongly stressed the need for intermediaries in the process – entities that can bring together employers, higher education and workforce development initiatives in local communities to discuss shared needs and goals. Intermediaries can also provide direct support to employers as they craft apprenticeship programs.  In addition, partnerships like the Apprentice Network in Chicago are being established to share the best practices of companies like Aon and Accenture, two organizations that are developing innovative programs and are pushing other companies to follow their lead.

Ultimately, apprenticeships will only thrive here if everyone who has a stake in the process – the federal government, private employers, higher education, and states – works together toward unified goals.  Legislators should look to policy solutions like the CHANCE in Tech Act, which would encourage more public/private funding for apprenticeship programs in the technology sector. As America’s jobs and economy shift, we need to do all we can to make sure every student is 21st century ready.  Every student should have the opportunity to go to college, but for those who decide a four-year degree isn’t for them, or for those aiming for a four-year degree who would benefit from hands-on training, apprenticeships can be a good solution to ensure our young people are workforce ready.