The Apprentice Opportunity: Using an Old Model to Recruit Fresh Talent

Apprenticeships have been a straightforward model of entry-level training since they were established centuries ago. Pay a young person just starting out (in money or in-kind) to learn skills while performing needed tasks. After a prescribed period, recognize the apprentice’s experience gained with a credential so that they can pursue their livelihood.

The model has always been limited, however. In ancient days, it produced bakers and blacksmiths. More recently, it has climbed the ladder to more complex work, such as plumbing and electricity. But apprenticeship has generally not penetrated the rarefied atmosphere that surrounds work that is believed to require a college degree.

It’s time for a fresh look.

Especially in an environment where labor is in demand and technological advances mean workers need to continually learn new skills, the apprenticeship model opens up new talent sources for employers.

Apprenticeship-style programs offer a “try before you buy” approach for both employers and employees. Employers benefit from a new source of talent: the increasing number of people who lack a four-year degree – or can’t afford one. Employees benefit from free training and the opportunity for career advancement. Whether following the traditional model or some modern variation, apprenticeship programs can supply talent pipelines and expand opportunities for women and people of color.

To leverage the benefits of apprenticeship programs, employers can access government-funded programs, work through third parties, or set up their own programs. Here we take a look at traditional and emerging opportunities in apprenticeships and steps employers can take to get maximum value from these programs.

Group of young creative people collaborating in modern office

Apprenticeships: An alternative recruiting avenue

Apprenticeships are an interesting choice for employers who struggle to fill empty roles and find that traditional recruiting methods, such as ads or job fairs, are not working or not working fast enough.

A number of factors are converging to create a crisis of sorts in many industries:

The convergence of all these factors has led both government and private industry to redefine the scope and meaning of apprenticeships. In the U.S., for example, apprentices now work in a wide range of industries – a list that has expanded from the traditional manufacturing, construction, and energy industries to include financial services, healthcare, hospitality, information technology, telecom, and transportation.

Government agencies as well as for-profit and nonprofit organizations play an important role in running apprentice programs, though employers also offer their own programs. The U.S. offers technical assistance and other resources for registered apprenticeships that meet quality standards. Such apprenticeships are required to have a minimum of one year with 2,000 hours on the job, along with a 144-hour minimum of related instruction.

Employers benefit from a new source of talent: the increasing number of people who lack a four-year degree – or can’t afford one. Employees benefit from free training and the opportunity for career advancement.

Aerospace company Lockheed Martin is an example of a business that works with the nonprofit Jobs for the Future (JFF) and its Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning to train apprentices in roles that include aircraft maintenance and assembly, cybersecurity, and engineering.

Apprenticeships combine full-time employment with supervised on-the-job training and related instruction, says Deborah Kobes, senior director at JFF. Lockheed Martin has pledged to create more than 8,000 new work-based learning opportunities and 5,400 technical apprenticeships by July 2023.

Colleagues having an informal meeting

Democratizing access to better jobs

Telecom company Verizon partnered with Multiverse and Generation USA to establish its first class of Verizon Thrive apprentices, which is a part of the company’s corporate responsibility plan, in June 2021. These trainees serve in various technology roles, including software engineering and digital marketing.

Sophie Ruddock, vice president and general manager for North America at Multiverse, says the company started in 2016 to connect more people who were not pursuing college education and traditional corporate programs to work in the technology industry. This, she says, will “democratize access to the best careers.”

“You see two-thirds of chief information officers saying that they see a shortage of skills in their current workforce. You see large tech companies saying that they could hire every single computer science graduate in the country and still have open jobs,” Ruddock says. Multiverse, she adds, “got really excited about the role that professional apprenticeships could play in tackling these challenges, both for those entering the workplace for the first time as well as for existing employees” to learn new skills.

“You see two-thirds of chief information officers saying that they see a shortage of skills in their current workforce.”

Sophie Ruddock, Vice President and General Manager for North America at Multiverse

The spur for apprenticeships can also rise from regional concerns. Paula Mathias-Fryer is senior director at SLO Partners, a California nonprofit that provides apprenticeship programs for residents and companies in San Luis Obispo County, about 190 miles north of Los Angeles. SLO Partners was formed in 2014 by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education to help residents land higher-paying jobs while also addressing a skilled talent shortage for local businesses. The in-demand positions for which SLO Partners helps train workers include a wide range of jobs, such as childcare, software development, and manufacturing (technicians in production, mechanical assembly, engineering, and composites).

Mathias-Fryer says SLO Partner’s Precision Manufacturing Bootcamp is one example of a training program they offer. Participants study topics related to assembly and disassembly, blueprint reading, mechatronics, lean manufacturing concepts, and workplace safety four days a week, four hours each day, for nine weeks. (See sidebar for additional training models.)

Student working in library at night

Besides apprenticeships, employers have adopted a range of training models.

Deborah Kobes, Senior Director at JFF, says such programs range from internships (paid and unpaid) to specialized onboarding programs that teach skills. “It could be just structured, on-the-job learning when you hire new employees who need additional support for the first couple of months to get some core skills and confidence,” she says.

Paula Mathias-Fryer, Program Director at SLO Partners, says her organization launched a digital marketing bootcamp after seeing the important role that social media played in keeping businesses viable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Role rotations are another form of on-the-job training. The one-year SAP Impact Program, for example, enables MBA graduates to rotate through a series of projects to gain experience before they get placed at the company.

Universities have long offered options similar to apprenticeships. Both Northeastern University and the Rochester Institute of Technology offer well-established programs. High school apprenticeship programs are also available.

These examples are just the beginning. Other organizations are using apprenticeship programs in IT (Google, IBM, Techtonic, and trade group CompTIA); healthcare (CVS Health); manufacturing (John Deere), and finance services (The Hartford, Zurich Insurance).

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Apprenticeship ROI

The benefits of apprenticeships extend beyond the topline returns – the expanded ability for employers to identify, hire, and retain new talent and the new job opportunities, fresh skills, and newly minted credentials for the apprentices.

For employers, a doorway to diversity. Mathias-Fryer says that another benefit of apprenticeship programs for employers is that they help women and minorities gain employment opportunities that have not been previously available to them. Twenty-five percent of SLO Partners’ students are women – and some training sessions for software coding have been made up of 50% women. The number of minority participants has also grown from 12% to 20%. Hispanics account for 16.5%. There’s also diversity in the age of participants; SLO has seen this recently, with one 67-year-old student and the median age around 35.

Employee retention. Retaining workers is another benefit for employers, and while some might see risk in providing employees with skills that could make them attractive to other employers, the opposite is true. At Multiverse, where programs last at least a year and are entirely free to employees, “almost 90% of our apprentices stay on long-term with their companies,” Ruddock says.

Retaining institutional knowledge. Employers also have an opportunity to leverage the talent of older, experienced employees near retirement to mentor apprentices and provide institutional knowledge and tricks of the trade before they leave the organization. This ensures that institutional knowledge is retained and that apprenticeships can gain value from the insights and experiences of their older colleagues.

An effective talent management can become a competitive advantage

Apprentices obviously benefit from learning new skills. But there are some additional, perhaps less obvious, benefits.

Easier on-ramps to the job market. Mathias-Fryer points out that apprenticeships can lessen or remove barriers that program participants have experienced with traditional education offerings such as college. Apprenticeships are more affordable, easier to win acceptance to, and often part-time, appealing to those with responsibilities such as childcare or eldercare.

In addition to increasing demand for employees across a wide range of roles, the pandemic has resulted in many employees rethinking their career paths and seeking new opportunities. Apprenticeships provide an opportunity to explore new pathways while getting a realistic preview of what the role, and company, might be like.

For apprentices, the building of a professional network. Participation in these programs enables trainees to gain experience working with a cohort of other apprentices, whether they’re in the same organization or doing similar work at another company. At Multiverse, for instance, all apprentices join the Multiverse Community, an online channel where apprentices can share information and engage with each other. The community is a way that apprenticeship programs can offer some of the social benefits of traditional universities – such as clubs and societies, networking, and access to high-profile speakers, Ruddock says.

Technologists are also experimenting with blockchain technology as a way for apprentices to catalog their expertise in a portable, digital format. The potential payoff: apprentices will be able to maintain their credentials in their own digital resumes as they move around to different employers.

Awareness is building around the benefits of apprenticeships, and that’s driving demand. SLO has more than doubled its numbers over the past two years, going from 102 participants to more than 300. Ruddock says that Multiverse has grown during the pandemic, from 1,000 apprentices in March 2020 to 5,000 at the start of 2022. “So many organizations are faced with the challenge of not having the skills that they need and also being concerned that now the labor market is ticking up and they’re at risk of losing their workforce,” Ruddock says.

Group taking a selfie

Adopting the apprenticeship model

As the long history of apprenticeships attests and the range of models available today suggests, there are many options for employers to get involved in partnering with a provider or setting up their own training programs.

Evaluate your needs and capabilities. For organizations evaluating whether and how to set up their own apprenticeship programs, the first step is to assess existing talent needs and skills gaps. This might mean a need for more software developers, machinists, or digital marketing experts.

Then consider the expertise and capacity you may have internally to run the program versus working with another organization or agency to handle the heavy lifting. “We often hear from companies who say, ‘We’re in investment banking; we’re not an education organization,’ and that’s often why they choose to partner with us,” says JFF’s Kobes.

Commit to workforce-strategy development and drive long-term stability and growth for your organization

Appoint an apprentice champion. Whether the decision is to go outside or in-house to run a training program, it’s important to have a point person to lead the effort. Even when working with a third party, though, Ruddock of Multiverse recommends having a strong internal advocate. “The way that a program like this can be launched successfully is by having really strong business champions.” This champion will need to win the backing of supervisors and managers so that they in turn will coach program participants and support them to succeed.

Scrutinize the quality of program providers. If a company chooses to partner with a training service provider, it’s essential to ensure their abilities to meet talent needs. Kobes says that employers should perform due diligence to ensure that the skills training provider has the qualifications to provide high-quality apprentice training and can teach the specific skills that their organization needs.

Employers looking to retain skilled employees and recruit new talent face challenges on multiple fronts, including an aging population and the effects of the pandemic, which have created stiffer competition for talent. That pool is also considering alternatives to traditional education, which has long been unavailable to them due to high costs and admissions challenges faced by minority populations. Apprenticeships, an old idea, now represent some interesting new twists that can address the needs of both groups.