Better path to skilled employees: Grow your own

An ‘earn and learn’ strategy may help your business overcome workforce challenges

Julia Maglione

What workforce challenges is your business facing?

Difficulty finding employees with the right skills?

Positions with high turnover?

Upcoming retirement of skilled workers?

Challenges helping workers keep pace with industry advances?

Difficulty attracting new and diverse talent?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, an “earn and learn” strategy might be the way to meet your needs.

To learn a trade or skill in earlier times, you partnered with an older and wiser person and learned from them – it was called apprenticeship. Today it’s also known as on-the-job training, paid internships and “earn and learn.”

The threat of retiring workers, skills gaps and ever-changing technology is prompting employers and the government to explore innovative ideas, like “earn and learn” to develop a skilled workforce.

Looking to decades-old models in Germany and Switzerland, the U.S. departments of commerce, education and labor held meetings in June with representatives of these countries and businesses operating apprenticeship programs to discuss the importance of increasing U.S. apprenticeships.

Locally, companies such as Thompson Metal Fab and Kapstone use apprenticeships to transfer knowledge and improve employee skills through on-the-job training. The model has also been applied in health care, information technology, finance and insurance.

“Earn and learn” is catching on with the public as well. In the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington’s May 2014 “500,000 Voices” survey, ongoing education and on-the-job training rated high as ways to expand opportunities for our growing workforce; training low-income workers was a top priority for 70 percent of respondents.

Implementing “earn and learn” programs will require some to think differently about education and work. Speaking on a workforce development panel at the SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington D.C. in March, Joerg Klisch, vice president of North American Operations for MTU America (a manufacturer in South Carolina), recounted how parents were wary of a career pathway that did not include college right after high school. He held an open house for them to gain understanding of apprenticeships and advanced manufacturing. By the end of the event, parents were saying how they wished the option had been available when they were young and what a great opportunity it was for their children to get jobs and make a good living.

Business must also rethink workforce development and play a leading role in creating and running these programs. Not only identifying skills and knowledge their workers must learn, but hiring new workers or selecting current employees to be apprentices, providing on-the-job training, identifying experienced employees to work with apprentices, paying progressively higher wages as skills increase and providing instruction in-house or in partnership with others.

The good news: employers are not in this alone. Economic development agencies, WorkSource, the Workforce Development Council and local colleges are looking at ways to partner in developing “earn and learn” programs.

WorkSource has funds for on-the-job training of new employees in health care, manufacturing and tech/IT/software; contact Darcy Hoffman, WorkSource’s business services manager, at dhoffman@esd.wa.gov before you hire. In a few weeks, they’ll launch a new training and education program, Reboot NW, that includes paid internships and apprenticeships in high-tech and manufacturing.

The Workforce Development Council has grants to help train existing workers in specific high-tech and manufacturing positions. Numerous businesses have used these funds to provide on-the-job training to employees, increasing employee retention and company competitiveness.

It is time to rethink work, how we get employees and whose responsibility it is to train them. “Earn and learn” programs are an excellent avenue for helping businesses meet their workforce needs by helping individuals acquire skills to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow.

Julia Maglione is communications manager at the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council (SWWDC). She can be reached at or 360.567.3176jmaglione@swwdc.org .

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