95A53BC1-BD0C-42D8-B7A2-66E4F0B137EAIn spite of shrinking unemployment numbers, many companies say they’re still having trouble finding workers with the skills necessary to fill specific roles. An April 2017 survey from CareerBuilder found that 60% of U.S. employers across a wide range of industries have job openings that stay open for 12 weeks or longer. The average cost of extended vacancies is more than $800,000 annually, and this inability to find candidates takes a toll on productivity, morale, and revenue, to name a few areas.


Apprenticeships have long been used by manufacturing and the trades to give workers the skills, knowledge, and on-the-job training they need to transition seamlessly into specific roles. Now, in an effort to bridge the skills gap and tap new talent pools, more companies are using the apprenticeship model, partnering with community colleges and four-year higher education institutions as well as nonprofit community organizations, to find workers and ensure they have the precise skills they need to do the job.

In June 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order expanding U.S. apprenticeships, and those that meet certain standards may qualify for registered apprenticeship status with the Department of Labor, possibly making the employer eligible for tax credits.

Learning On The Job

Companies with demand for employees in areas like sales, marketing, technology, and other roles considered “white collar” are finding that the apprenticeship model works for them. Different from internships, which may be paid or unpaid and include tasks ranging from clerical work to more advanced industry experience, apprentices are paid and begin training immediately.

Five years ago, when Bridget Gainer, vice president of global public affairs for professional services firm Aon, looked out her window, she could see Harold Washington College, a community college that is part of the City Colleges of Chicago system. “But we never engaged there, never hired anyone, never really had much to do with the school,” she says. “We thought, ‘Let’s try to bridge that gap.’”

After developing an internship program, she says her team realized that if they really wanted to make an impact, they needed to offer a pathway to careers. Drawing on the firm’s experience developing apprenticeships in the U.K., they began to look at all entry-level jobs and evaluate whether they really needed to be filled by someone with a four-year degree. They also looked at roles that had a high rate of attrition and found four that met both criteria.

“There was a clear business case that we needed a different pipeline into this part of our business,” she says. The firm worked closely with Harold Washington to create a program where apprentices would work for Aon Monday through Thursday and go to class at Harold Washington on Friday. When students complete the apprenticeship, they get both a certification and an associate’s degree. The current class of interns, who completed their first year, has a 100% retention rate and is more diverse than traditional recruiting classes, Gainer says.

Management consulting firm Accenture modeled its apprenticeship program on Aon’s. Julie Sweet, Accenture CEO-North America, says the company now works with a number of partners, including the City of San Antonio/Bexar County, Year Up, Genesys Works, One Million Degrees, the City Colleges of Chicago, and others. This year, the Chicago program, which is focused on technology jobs, will have roughly 100 apprentices at Accenture.

Of course, for these types of programs to truly have a widespread impact, they need to grow beyond 100 apprentices here and there. Sweet says Accenture is “systematically expanding that program city by city where we are opening innovation hubs,” she says. Over the next 12 months, Accenture is working on creating “Apprenticeship in a Box,” which will be a road map for other companies to develop their own internship programs.

What Makes It Work?

Beyond the requirements necessary for registered internships, all successful apprenticeship programs have a number of key factors in common, says Maria Flynn, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future in Boston, who has worked with such programs for more than a decade.

Leadership buy-in. Apprenticeship programs are driven by the needs of the employer. So leadership buy-in is essential to ensure that the skills and knowledge the apprenticeship develops are in alignment with both the current and future needs of the organization, Flynn says. “You address the issue of alignment up front, which is what makes this a really great approach [to developing talent],” she says.

Structure. To be successful in job-readiness development, the program has to be highly structured with both high-quality, work-based learning as well as classroom instruction that supports the hands-on learning. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in a bricks-and-mortar school—today, students have a wealth of online learning options. But Flynn says a key part of what makes apprenticeships so successful over the long term is the combination of learning and doing.

Continuous feedback. Just as trade apprenticeships include an apprentice under close supervision of a seasoned and licensed professional, all apprenticeships should include a continuous feedback loop, says Gainer. “You go into an apprenticeship for a specific job. You are an HR analyst. You are an IT specialist. You are a claims specialist. It’s a specific role with a specific set of skills. You want to finish the apprenticeship, so you are certified to do those things,” she says.

Wage growth. Flynn adds that a big advantage of the apprenticeship model is that the individual can earn while working, which makes this an attractive option for those who can’t afford to go to school full-time or take unpaid internships.

Support. Students who are working and balancing classroom instruction may need support. During Accenture’s program, representatives from One Million Degrees, a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive support to Chicago community college students to help them graduate, meet with students on the days they’re at Harold Washington to help them with areas of struggle or need that they encounter.

Credentials and a career path. The goal of the apprenticeship program should be a certification or other form of recognized credential that gives the individual an advantage in the workplace, Flynn says. In addition, Gainer adds that companies instituting apprenticeship programs should also look at how individuals who enter the company through apprentice programs can be developed and promoted alongside those who come to the company through more traditional pathways.

Leave a Reply