Apprenticeships Are on the Rise. They're One Answer to the So-Called 'Skills Shortage'
Rare is the CEO who can’t find a business metaphor for “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” But ask whether the shortage of willing workers preceded the excess of jobs, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Professors at Ivy League schools have their theories ranging from the sudden retirement of baby boomers during the pandemic to employers’ reluctance to hire inexperienced workers.
“It’s actually hard to find a job ad that doesn’t ask for experience,” said professor Peter Cappelli, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Center for Human Resources.
Bridging the Gap Between School and Work
“There’s a disconnect between work and school,” Harvard professor Joseph Fuller told Reworked. He co-leads the school’s initiative, Managing the Future of Work. Fuller has proposals to help solve the skilled worker shortage in the United States. Among them is apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are a way for high school students to gain experience with skills in demand. Unlike most college internships, which generally last a few months, are offered exclusively to college students, and are typically poorly compensated (if at all), apprenticeships usually last a year or more (although some are part-time at first), pay a decent wage, provide true on the job training and a direct path to careers that pay well.
Fuller and his colleagues used a dataset from Careerwise, an organization which launches youth apprenticeship programs to support the talent acquisition and development needs of enterprise employers, to take a closer look at apprenticeships. Their study found that 20% of high school students who embarked on an apprenticeship joined their host full-time upon high school graduation, 17% switched to a new employer, 27% left employment to attend college, 22% returned to high school and 5% were neither working nor in school. Though it may not be obvious, numbers like this represent a success because they expand the available options for both high school students and employers.
While union jobs like electrician, plumber, heavy machine operator and similar may be what springs to mind with the word “apprentice,” apprenticeships are applicable to at least 30 professions, including in fields like advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, digital marketing, financial services, healthcare, imaging, IT and supply chain. Unlike college students who sometimes take courses that aren’t tied to their intended professions, apprentices learn skills in an in-demand field.
Compare that to a newly matriculated college student. They may or may not have a professional job upon graduation. If they do, chances are good that they will not be productive for months to come. And those critical thinking skills that college taught them? “They weren’t hired to make executive decisions, especially not right away,” said Cappelli. Worth noting here is Cappelli is the author of "Will College Payoff? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You Will Ever Make?"
The answer to the question in Capelli's title is ... it depends. While college grads have up until now earned more than high school grads (there aren’t enough apprenticeships in the United States to include them in the comparison), it takes longer for them to enter the world of work and they are, more than likely, in greater debt. Not only that, but not everyone graduates from college in four years (40% graduate in six years). Thirty percent of those who start college don’t graduate, but still have the debt.
Related Article: How to Hire for Potential, Not Just Experience
Is College Still Worth It?
The tradeoff between college/no college is so substantial that less than half of Americans now believe that the economic advantages of attending college are worth the expenses. Younger individuals, especially Generation Z and millennials, express the least amount of contentment with conventional higher education compared to older generations. This number is likely to grow, especially if hiring managers buy into HR’s adoption of skills-based hiring where having a degree does not necessarily lead to greater odds of being offered the job and at higher pay.
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Cappelli insists that “there isn’t a shortage of workers, there’s a shortage of employers who are willing to pay (what college graduates require). Though they are not saying it out loud, (but through their actions), companies want to pay less for better for new hires and if that’s not available, they won’t fill the jobs.”
Apprentices, at least in theory, solve that problem because they start at lower wages and are productive sooner given that they have been working part-time in their chosen professions for their junior and senior years of high school. Not only that, but the small number of employers who have apprenticeship programs are well supported by high schools, employers and state or local governments. Take for example Cengage Group, whose program has been recognized by the White House, is administered by Apprenti and is 12 months in duration. A training period of eight to 22 weeks of learning precedes it. Other companies also offering apprenticeship programs include Amazon, Bank of America, EvergreenTrading, FleishmanHillard, Google, Office of Homeland Security and Teva Pharmaceuticals, among others.
Related Article: Worker Shortage? Tell That to the 'Older Workers'
A Growing Future for Apprenticeships?
Some academics like Fuller believe that the number of apprenticeships will grow in the United States given the data showing there is positive return on investment. Not only that, but apprenticeships make a good vehicle to bring diverse populations into good jobs which is something that business, society and government want. What will be required, however is for companies, educators and state and local governments to work well together. Cappelli insists that that won’t happen because employers won’t play along. “They don’t want to train, they want to hire experienced people,” he said, adding that high schools don’t have programs to track would-be apprentices into.
That said, last September the Biden-Harris administration announced the establishment of the Apprenticeship Ambassador Initiative. The initiative comprises a nationwide network of over 200 employers, industry organizations, labor organizations, educators, workforce intermediaries and community-based organizations that share a common objective of enhancing and broadening the scope of Registered Apprenticeship. According to the White House it is a “high-quality, debt-free, equitable 'earn and learn' model with a nationally recognized credential system that helps employers hire a more demographically diverse workforce and provides workers with on-the-job learning experience, job-related instruction with a mentor, and a clear pathway to a good-paying job."
Sound too good to be true? Let’s hope not.
About the Author
Virginia Backaitis is seasoned journalist who has covered the workplace since 2008 and technology since 2002. She has written for publications such as The New York Post, Seeking Alpha, The Herald Sun, CMSWire, NewsBreak, RealClear Markets, RealClear Education, Digitizing Polaris, and Reworked among others. Connect with Virginia Backaitis: