Reinventing the Apprenticeship

Published nov. 03, 2015

No workforce development strategy has the same track record as apprenticeship, which has proven to be one of the most effective ways to connect education to work since the middle ages. In recent years, this age-old model of training has been reinvented as an innovative new way to prepare people to fill high-demand jobs and address skills gaps in industries ranging from health care to manufacturing to information technology. On average, the starting salary for apprentices equipped with newly minted skills begins at $50,000—a respectable, livable wage in most major U.S. cities. This combination of historical success and creative reinvention has recently brought apprenticeships into the national spotlight. In his 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama encouraged more companies to provide paid apprenticeships, supporting and expanding programs through grants and other incentives. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $175 million to grantees, both public and private, that have pledged to reinvigorate and expand apprenticeship programs in lucrative industry sectors.

Apprenticeship has evolved from a period of tutelage during which a master passes on knowledge and skills to a formalized registered apprenticeship process with rigor and standards for classroom instruction and on-the-job training set by the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship as well as state apprenticeship offices. Now, businesses and educators around the country have adopted this model well beyond the traditional sectors of construction and other trades into a wide range of industries. Leading practitioners have refined their training models to incorporate new learning opportunities—such as competency-based education, where participants progress attain demonstrated, observable, and measurable competencies in lieu of meeting time-based work experience and on-the-job learning. These leading programs offer a wide range of vital and dynamic apprenticeships that marry adult learning theory with business and industry skills, bolstered by wraparound supports, to produce economic and labor market benefits for learners, employers, and taxpayers. 

Innovative Apprenticeship Programs 

A number of innovative programs highlight the potential of apprenticeships. Major corporations like CVS Health and IBM operate on an “earn and learn” strategy for their participants. They employ on and off ramps, offering apprentices the ability to grow within the company with stackable, and often-transferrable credentials. As of October 2015, CVS Health has had over 1,500 current and graduated apprentices. They were among the first employers to launch a registered pharmacy technician program in 2005, and since then have expanded into creating pathways in business, retail pharmacy, and management. 

David Casey, VP for Workforce Strategies and Chief Diversity Officer at CVS Health, recognizes the benefit of CVS’s apprenticeship program for current employees. While he knows that you cannot expect employees to stay at a company forever, he is adamant about growing incumbent employees through new career pathway programs and incremental wage increases based on skill attainment and college credit by experience. 

The need for innovation in apprenticeship has also created space for new ventures such as Vermont HITEC. The nonprofit organization works with health care, advanced manufacturing, and IT companies—all nontraditional sectors for apprenticeships in the United States—to develop competency-based and hybrid (time-based blended with competency-based) apprenticeship programs. Vermont HITEC creates a customized curriculum and guarantees a job to each of its graduates, which in turn eliminates competition in the classroom. By focusing on skills, the organization can reduce the total amount of time that individuals remain apprentices. Currently, Vermont HITEC has:

  • Created programs for 27 employers
  • Created 1,132 jobs
  • Graduated 1,110 apprenticeship graduates
  • Served 23 different communities. 

They partner with USDOL, Vermont DOL, and New Hampshire so that each of these apprenticeships is nationally registered.

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, Strategic Development Solutions, and a wide range of industry and educational partners have teamed up to design and deliver an apprenticeship for an emerging sector in the national economy. The Maker Professional Registered Apprenticeship is competency-based, with apprentices demonstrating that they have the critical skills needed by the companies that make up the new Maker Movement. As 3D printers and other technologies spur entrepreneurs to create and grow small businesses, the sector also requires a system to develop its growing workforce. This apprenticeship has responded to the innovative industry’s needs with an equally exciting training program that ensures workers master a range of machines and materials in the fields most critical to the Maker Movement such as design, additive manufacturing, lasers, electronics, coatings, wood shop, and welding. The Maker Professional apprenticeship can set the standard for the talent pipeline of this new form of manufacturing.

The Benefits of Apprenticeship 

Increasingly, apprenticeship programs are becoming known as “the other four-year degree,” and competency-based versions offer a path to accelerate that timeline. Industries offering these programs are focused on creating a population of workers who can do more than their predecessors by teaching critical thinking skills, design strategies, and production and inspection techniques. With soft skills becoming an integral part of every industry, the notion that a college setting is the only place to attain these skills will soon be completely debunked. 

The fact is, almost any industry can benefit from making apprenticeship a key part of its employee recruitment and development efforts. At a time when the costs of traditional postsecondary education are rising fast, workers need more flexible and cost-effective education and training options. Furthermore, employers need a pipeline of talent for skilled jobs. High-quality apprenticeship programs that incorporate innovative forms of teaching and learning and that are responsive to the most pressing talent needs of businesses can be a win-win for individuals and employers toward 21st-century economic success.