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Why U.S. Companies Should Invest in Apprenticeships

Nicholas Wyman
Nicholas Wyman

Learn how apprenticeships can help U.S. businesses develop a pipeline of skilled workers.

Some of the world's most prosperous economies – including Germany, Australia and the UK – have robust apprenticeship systems. School leavers and job changers in those countries can access education and training that leads directly to the workplace, while the companies that sponsor them get top-quality workers with the precise skills they need.

In the United States, however, apprenticeships are far less common. Many businesses see them as complicated and expensive and don't know if they really work. Others aren't sure the benefits are worth the cost. U.S. employers are more comfortable shopping for talent than creating it. However, astute employers know it's critical to have access to a pipeline of workers with 21st-century skills.

Dealing with the skills gap and shortages

The United States Department of Labor estimates that millions of vacancies exist in the American job market today and the main reason is a lack of skills among candidates. This presents a huge problem for American employers. They have jobs to fill and they have applicants for those jobs, but the skills of the applicants don't match the requirements of the job. Nine out of ten U.S. employers surveyed said the skills shortage negatively impacted productivity, staff turnover and employee satisfaction.

What do U.S. employers think is the reason for the shortage? Hands down they said it was a lack of training and development. For instance, just under two-thirds said they were disappointed by the lack of preparation for entry-level jobs and beyond. Throw into the mix that the half-life of job skills is about five years, according to the World Economic Forum, which means that a skill is half as valuable now than was five years ago. The 2017 WEF report said that more than a third of skills that jobs demand across industries will change by 2020. It has also been reported that the knowledge a person needs for their job changes every nine months. That's quite a difference from workers in the late 1940s, who could use their knowledge for 20 years in their jobs. Knowledge and skills are what keeps business humming. The way we grow workplace talent just isn't keeping pace with employers' dynamic needs. That transition from education to employment is out of sync with the fast-paced nature of business.

Rethinking the role of apprenticeship

Given this reality, some of the country's largest employers are now embracing apprenticeship. This is a training model that's stood the test of time and is flexible enough to deal with what contemporary businesses need.

You might not recognize elements that are commonplace in the modern apprenticeship. This is where you have customized, supervised and paid on-the-job training at a reduced cost or for free. Apprentices' wages go up in step with the skills they acquire during training.

There's usually related classroom instruction – either on or off-site – to reinforce the technical skills learned in the workplace. Mentoring and coaching are formalized, not ad hoc. Importantly, apprentices gain nationally-recognized industry credentials or specialized technical certificates by demonstrating they've achieved workplace competencies. Apprentices can even get college credit towards an associate or bachelor's degree at little or no extra expense.

Additionally, apprentices are finessing a suite of soft or enterprise skills including teamwork, work ethic and resilience as well as communication, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

This process may sound daunting to employers, but you might be surprised that most modern apprenticeship programs vary in length, depending on the employer and industry. The path isn't rigid and allows employers the flexibility to foster apprentices – even through dual specialties if needed – or have their training morph into a related-career area.

The U.S. government has boosted funding for apprenticeship programs, offering hundreds of millions of dollars ripe for the picking by astute employers keen to create their own pipeline of talent. Savvy employers are also checking out talented high school students who are tackling technical, skills-based coursework as part of their studies. There are multiple programs around the country in this space and it means those employers who've been involved generally can get the first pick of tomorrow's young workers. Collaboration between schools and local employers is a great way to see if high school students would be a good fit for your workplace, such as through pre-apprenticeship internships.

Apprenticeships aren't just for the trades

Companies who see the value of offering apprenticeships aren't just in the traditional trades of construction, plumbing and electrical. Non-trade investors in apprenticeships include LinkedIn, Lockheed Martin, JPMorgan Chase, Amazon, Nike, Dow Chemical Company, Mubea, Peterson Automotive Collection, CVS Health and the Black Oak Casino Resort.

Take Adobe, for example – a high-tech giant. The company is well aware of the skills shortage, which is particularly acute in the tech industry. This shortage can seriously hamper growth. Adobe is facing this problem head-on by finding local talent, including people who might not have thought of tech careers before and cultivating that talent in-house. It makes sense.

Along with career switchers from non-traditional backgrounds, Adobe is working with non-profit partners – such as Hack the Hood, Digital Nest, Year Up, Upwardly Global and the International Rescue Committee. It's doing this to identify people in low-paying or low-opportunity jobs who want to change their situation. Then the company does everything it can to enact that change by giving these candidates the skills they need to succeed in digital tech.

Step one is the Digital Academy, a three-month boot camp where students learn web development skills in a focused, supportive environment that includes ongoing feedback and intensive mentoring. Those who do well at boot camp have the opportunity to go on to a paid internship at Adobe (about 80% of them do) and potentially full-time employment. The company has hired 25 full-time employees from the Digital Academy since it started the program in 2016.

That might not seem like a lot, but it's 25 people who were in low-paying jobs with little prospect of advancement and are now employed in good, tech-sector jobs. Plus, Adobe is finding that employees who came through the Digital Academy are staying long term. All but one employee is still with the company (and he left to become a startup founder).

And for Adobe, this is only the beginning. The apprenticeship program started small, but its success means apprenticeship can become an important component of the company's workforce development strategy.

Adobe's experience shows it's not only doable – it's being done. This means you can do it too – benefitting from the experience and advice of those who've already started. Adobe and Mailchimp – another digital company with a successful apprenticeship program – are happy to share some pointers on getting apprenticeship programs off the ground.

Making apprenticeships happen

First, make sure you manage apprentices effectively. Set up a plan for advancement, including compensation levels at each step and go over that plan with your apprentices. Expose them to every level of the company and invite them to discussions they might not otherwise hear. In other words, help apprentices learn the full context of their work and workplace, so they understand how their specific job fits in with larger company goals.

Second, monitor and mentor your apprentices. Detail what's expected of the apprentice at each stage, including the skills and competencies they need to master along the way. Also help mentors and supervisors provide effective feedback that fosters a culture of continuous learning, where no one is afraid to ask for help. There's no such thing as a dumb question for those keen to learn.

Finally, start small. With a small pilot program, managers can easily see what's working and what isn't, and tweak the program if necessary, to build a successful model that they can use to secure buy-in across the company.

It may seem daunting, but if these companies are already creating apprenticeship programs to fill vital jobs, so can you. Modern apprenticeships are a tried and tested way to revitalize your workforce and meet your skill needs. US companies who invest in apprenticeship now might find themselves well ahead of the competition later. Hop on this bandwagon and you'll be nurturing talent and developing skills that will make your staff relevant in a world where learning never stops.

Image Credit: monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images
Nicholas Wyman
Nicholas Wyman Member
Nicholas Wyman is a workforce development and skills expert, author, speaker, and CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation (IWSI America). Wyman is a leader in developing skills-building, mentorship and apprenticeship programs that close the gap between education and careers around the world. IWSI works with a range of companies, governments and philanthropic organizations all across the globe, including Siemens, Nissan, Ford, and Mercedes-Benz as well as the Commonwealth of Virginia, the United Kingdom and Australia. Wyman frequently lectures on workplace job innovations, and appears on national broadcast programs. He is a regular contributor to Forbes and Quartz, and was named LinkedIn’s #1 Education Writer of the Year. His award-winning book, Job U, is a practical guide to finding wealth and success by developing the skills companies actually need. He is actively involved in school to work programs focusing on STEM education. A third-generation writer, Wyman began his own career by learning a trade. He was named Australian Apprentice of the Year in 1988 and went on to captain Australia’s gold medal-winning Culinary Youth Team. He has an MBA and has studied at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship.