Apprenticeships have been around since the Middle Ages. Back then, young laborers seeking to gain entry into a craft guild spent time training under expert guidance. Since the early 20th century, apprenticeships have been on the decline — and they aren’t exactly roaring back into public consciousness. But apprenticeship programs might just be the perfect solution to the labor shortage threatening to upend the American technology and manufacturing industries.
Today’s apprenticeships are a bit different from the open-ended internships that have long been a rite of passage for college students or recent graduates. Historically, both the apprentice and teacher had clearly defined obligations from the start, compensation during training was guaranteed, and most apprentices would begin their careers when training concluded.
That’s still largely the case, as 91% of apprentices are hired on at the end of their programs. But unlike interns who are just trying to get their foot in the door, apprentices acquire highly specific skills that typically aren’t taught in traditional colleges and universities. Modern apprenticeships are associated with skilled trades, which might be seen in a more negative light. But in today’s economy — where many companies and industries have an insatiable need for talent — we need to reframe the narrative around apprenticeships.
Building a Seamless Training-to-Job Pipeline
Apprenticeships have become especially relevant in the conversation around American workers and preparing people for middle-skilled jobs. For the most part, attending college has become the default path toward upward mobility in America. But as college tuition costs continue to soar and advances in automation keep threatening jobs, building effective training-to-job pipelines is everyone’s workforce-development priority.
Apprenticeships provide an answer. At my nonprofit — which matches tech companies with trained individuals — we’ve seen that these programs have a lasting positive impact not just on the bottom line, but also on employee recruiting and retention. The question is whether companies are confident enough to implement effective apprenticeship programs. Many a myth surrounds these programs, and this is especially difficult for industry decision makers. However, the path forward is clearer than companies think.
Myth 1: Apprenticeship programs aren’t worth the investment.
Internal apprenticeship programs require significant investment to be successful. In the place of a single national certification system, 25 states direct and evaluate independent apprenticeship programs, according to The Wharton Public Policy Initiative. Navigating this web of uncertainty poses a time and cost obstacle.
There’s also a perception among managers that taking on an apprentice will burden senior-level employees who will spend time on coaching rather than other tasks.
However, pairing entry-level apprentices with senior-level employees actually increases job satisfaction for senior team members, which could spell better long-term retention. After all, mentoring makes them feel invested in the company’s future. It also results in a smoother transition for apprentices and can significantly reduce onboarding time. Seamless entry into full-time positions is the first step toward employee productivity.
The benefits of these programs aren’t just indirect or confined to participating employees. In countries where apprenticeships tend to be more common and defined, such as Canada and England, these programs directly drive return on investment. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Apprentices learn by taking on the same tasks they’d face as full-time employees, which means they’re boosting productivity.
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Myth 2: Designing an effective apprenticeship program requires too much legwork.
Many employers assume they lack the infrastructure to create an effective apprenticeship program — or just don’t know how to establish new human resources practices specifically for apprentices. In fact, even employers that recognize the benefits of offering these programs might delay taking action because they don’t want to disrupt existing processes.
Luckily, companies aren’t alone — states play a key role in establishing policies and incentives that lead to jobs for residents and workers for local businesses. Apprenticeship Carolina is one great example. It includes a team of consultants that help guide employers through the registration process, making sure they take advantage of tax credits and other financial incentives.
Companies can start by checking out the existing infrastructure in their state. In the event state programs aren’t relevant, they can partner with local organizations that direct their own accelerated apprenticeship programs and manage on-the-job training and placement. This can even help companies jump-start their own programs.
Myth 3: Stellar apprentices are few and far between.
Employers might not know where to find quality apprentices who have the drive to succeed and want skills-based learning opportunities. Because many companies hire based on older or outdated practices, this is especially true in industries such as tech, where many workers are self-taught or don’t have typical résumés.
Fortunately, great apprentices aren’t difficult to find. For starters, the federal government can assist companies in the search and hiring process. Beyond that, companies should consider recruiting talent at local community colleges, which award half of their associate degrees to those in career and technical fields.
Community colleges recognize the potential for relationships with area businesses, and they’re proactively working to partner with apprenticeship programs registered with the United States Department of Labor.
Executives should identify which skill sets are hardest to fill and where trained apprentices could add value to their business. Most importantly, though, industry leaders must be willing to invest in the development of these workers. A relatively green trainee can quickly become a valuable employee with the right mentorship and training opportunities. And over time, companies should see huge improvements in recruiting and retention.
Jeff Mazur is the executive director for LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization aiming to fill the gap in tech talent by matching companies with trained individuals. As one of the winners of the 2017 MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, LaunchCode has been recognized for expanding “the tech workforce by providing free coding education to disadvantaged job seekers.” Jeff lives in St. Louis with his wife and twin girls.