Now is the time for apprenticeships

The benefits of apprenticeships extend far beyond expanding the pool of skilled workers

Michelle Giovannozzi

There is much talk of the “skills gap” – the widening space between the technical skills that employers need and the skillsets possessed by available workers. The need for skilled workers is not currently being met, especially in high demand trades. Baby boomers are retiring at increasing rates, taking expertise and institutional knowledge with them. The use of automation in all areas of manufacturing is rapidly growing, and the increase in technology means that even traditional trade jobs need higher tech skills. Fewer young people are entering the trades than in the past, and the number of students entering welding, machining and mechatronics programs is less than current demand. In addition, many companies do not want just trained workers – they seek baseline work experience for even entry-level positions.

One potential way to bridge the skills gap is to implement more apprenticeships, a model of workforce development that combines training, mentoring and on-the-job application to develop technical skills with hands-on practice. Germany has a history of apprenticeships harkening back to the Middle Ages, in which companies pay tuition and wages while apprentices learn a trade. Usually, the apprentice is hired full-time upon completion of training. In Germany, nearly two-thirds of the country’s workers are trained through partnerships among companies, technical schools and trade guilds. Yet in the United States, the number of apprentices has rapidly declined. According to the Department of Labor, between 2003 and 2013 formal programs that combine on-the-job learning with mentorships and classroom education fell 40 percent in the U.S.

Traditionally in the United States apprenticeships have been associated with the construction industry and labor unions. However, informal and formal apprenticeships can be scaled and customized to fit any organization. Companies of any industry or size can create a “learn and earn” program where employees can work, study and master skills key to the company at the same time. Existing, successful examples of this model range from machinists to industrial maintenance workers to medical technicians and IT workers. Wisconsin currently has approximately 8,000 apprentices in positions ranging from truck driving to high-tech manufacturing. In South Carolina, the number of businesses offering apprenticeships has grown from 90 in 2007 to 647 today, and more than 4,700 individuals have trained for positions such as computer professionals and certified nursing assistants.

Companies interested in implementing an apprenticeship can partner with their community college to identify relevant classes or compressed, customized training and to map out an on-the-job training program that integrates with and enhances classroom learning. Once the apprenticeship has been set up, employees go to school and work for the employer simultaneously, earning a living while developing in-demand skills to support their employer’s needs in a short period of time. The company schedules the apprentices so as to alternate training time with supervised, on-the-job practice and application of skills learned. Experienced pros are paired with new workers to guide, cultivate and integrate their skill development in the workplace.

The benefits of apprenticeships extend beyond expanding the pool of skilled workers. Companies use apprenticeships to transfer skills from experienced workers to new workers, enabling the organization to retain institutional knowledge when tenured employees retire. Apprenticeships create a career path and demonstrate investment in workers, which often result in improved employee retention. Companies make an upfront investment in apprentices, but the cost is generally much less than the alternative costs of turnover, lengthy national searches or the business impacts of insufficient trained workers. A 2013 study by the Washington State Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board found that for every $1 in state investment in apprenticeships, taxpayers received $23 in net benefits.

Now is the time to set up apprenticeship programs. In April, President Obama announced that $600 million would be made available in federal grant funds for apprenticeship programs. Accessing resources like these, community colleges, workforce and economic development partners, and employers can work together to create apprenticeships with maximum outcomes for minimal costs.

Michelle Giovannozzi is director of corporate and community partnerships for Clark College.