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The Exciting Promise of Apprenticeships
In a labor market where skills are increasingly valued over degrees, apprenticeships offer an exciting alternative to traditional college education. They provide hands-on training, skill-based education, and a direct path to employment. However, the pathway is not without its challenges, especially for employers aspiring to launch their own programs and for applicants seeking entry into these programs.
The Rise of Apprenticeships
The apprenticeship model is not just an old tradition but a growing trend. In the United States, there has been an 106% increase in active apprentices since 2013. While the % of apprentices in the US is much smaller than in other places throughout Europe and Canada, this surge reflects the growing recognition of apprenticeships as a viable and valuable alternative to traditional higher education.
Skill-Based, Debt-Free Education
These programs combine practical on-the-job training with classroom instruction. Apprenticeships offer a debt-free educational pathway, allowing you to earn while you learn.
Many apprenticeships lead directly to job placement, facilitating a smooth transition from education to career.
Benefits for Employers
For employers, apprenticeships offer the opportunity to shape the skills of their future workforce with training specific to the job they will be performing. Additionally, various funding avenues are available, especially for apprenticeships that meet federal and state guidelines.
A Harsher Reality for Employers
Building an apprenticeship is an expensive and time consuming process. And despite available funding, employers rarely see any of it flow into their pockets. In some places like California, getting a new construction-related apprenticeship approved is a tall, seemingly impossible order. There are horror stories of companies spending years and a significant amount of grant money developing a program, only to have it rejected for overlapping with existing union curricula. The Unified School District of Los Angeles told us it’s been over a decade since they’ve seen a new apprenticeship in construction get approved.
The sobering reality? Employers are often forced to partner with existing programs and unions for their training needs, taking the gatekeeping out of their hands. This not only limits their control over the talent pipeline but also makes it challenging to quickly scale up the intake of new talent during periods of shortage.
The Difficulties from an Applicant's Perspective
Entry into apprenticeship programs, especially those affiliated with unions, can be extraordinarily challenging and selective. For example, we heard of one sheet metal union that had 9,000 applicants but accepted only 35, putting its acceptance rate on par with the most selective colleges in the U.S.
Moreover, many applications have yet to be digitally adapted, requiring applicants to submit them in person periodically. This logistical hurdle further complicates the application process, especially for those balancing other commitments.
Adding to these challenges is the decline of vocational education in the high school system. The disappearance of shop classes and similar courses means many potential apprentices lack the foundational skills traditionally acquired before pursuing an apprenticeship. This has made the entry barrier even higher for many hopefuls.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The apprenticeship landscape, while promising, is fraught with complexities for both employers and applicants. For employers, particularly smaller ones, the barriers to entry are too high. For applicants, the competition is fierce and the application process is cumbersome. So what can be done?
- Advocate for More Flexible Funding: Employers and industry associations can lobby for more flexible funding arrangements that can accommodate new programs. It's not going to happen overnight, but more money needs to be available to incentivize employers, since they are often the ones taking the risk of hiring and training the talent.
- Digital Transformation: Training programs should look to digitize the application process, making it more accessible for a broader range of applicants.
- Invest in Pre-Apprenticeships / On-the-Job Training: One avenue for employers who find it difficult to start their own apprenticeship programs is to invest in pre-apprenticeship programs or on-the-job training initiatives. These can serve as a stepping stone to full apprenticeships or offer a flexible way to assess and train potential talent without the guardrails of a full-fledged apprenticeship.
While apprenticeships offer a promising alternative to traditional education pathways, the challenges are substantial. A well-informed, strategic approach is essential for successfully navigating this intricate landscape.
Feel free to contact us and we'd be happy to share more of our learnings on the topic.