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How Apprenticeships and Teaching Thinking go Hand-in-Hand

If I were to ask you to picture a cell phone – would you picture a baseball sized item, battleship grey, with a silver antenna you had to pull out of the top? Of course not. That is a cell phone of yesteryear.

Yet when we mention the word “apprenticeship” to organizations or individuals, the most frequent reaction is, “Oh, that’s not for us/me; apprenticeships are for manufacturing, hands-on labor, blue-collar jobs.” Not so! Those are apprenticeships of yesteryear.

Welcome to the new era of apprenticeships – they just might save your organization.

On June 29th President Trump signed an Executive Order – Apprenticeship and Workforce of Tomorrow – to expand apprenticeships in the US.  The goal is 5 million apprenticeships in the next 5 years (currently there are 450,000 registered apprenticeships in America).

It shall be the policy of the Federal Government to provide more affordable pathways to secure, high paying jobs by promoting apprenticeships and effective workforce development programs.

According to the Department of Labor, companies in all sectors of the American economy are facing complex workforce challenges and increasingly competitive domestic and global markets. Apprenticeships are one key to helping people who have been left behind by shifts in the economy and how work is done.

The Success of Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are a standard route to a career in much of Europe. Germany, especially, is known for its exceptional apprenticeship model. In Germany, half of high school graduates choose a track that combines training on-the-job with further education at a vocational institution (as opposed to the US, in which less than 5% of young people participate in apprenticeship programs). The mainstream nature of apprenticeships in Germany contributes to the country having the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe.

Apprenticeships are an acceptable and highly respected alternative to college. At the John Deere plant in Mannheim, over 3,000 young people a year vie for 60 apprentice spots; likewise, at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, over 22,000 applicants view for just 425 places. Another benefit that Germany reaps from its well-seasoned apprenticeship program is keeping manufacturing jobs in the country; however, apprenticeships are no longer focused solely on manufacturing or “trades.” Apprenticeships are now common in IT, banking, hospitality, and healthcare.

In the future, there will be robots to turn the screws. We don’t need workers for that. What we need are people who can solve problems – skilled, thoughtful, self-reliant employees who understand company goals and methods. (German educator)

Perhaps it won’t Work in America

There are a number of reasons why apprentice programs may not work in America, unfortunately.

Naysayers cite costs, stigma, cooperation, changing belief systems, and turning a big ship around. In short, it’s not going to be quick and it’s not going to be easy. In the United States there is a tendency toward higher education as the path to career options, although a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education admits “something about the path from college to career is not working for many people.”

In recent decades we’ve seen corporate America severely reduce the budgets of training departments and cut back the hours allotted for training, per individual. The cost of apprenticeship programs is largely borne by the employer (German companies say their costs range from $25,000 to $80,000 per apprentice) and take two to six years to complete. One program, at a Siemens plant here in the US (Charlotte NC), reportedly spends $170,000 per apprentice. Cost should be seen as an investment, say German proponents. Rather than looking for immediate ROI, companies need to look to longer-term benefits such as a ready and able talent pool, long-term employees (studies have shown that apprentices stay with the company that trained them – a loyalty is established), and workers who understand their organization’s culture and goals.  Additionally there is a social component – skilling individuals for blue-collar, white-collar, and jobs of-the-future is one of the best ways to cure income inequality.

Americans aren’t simply going to jettison old attitudes and decide, for example, that long-term gains, however broad, should trump short-term ROI.

Unlike in Europe, where apprenticeships are integrated in to the educational system (in Switzerland students are introduced to apprenticeships as early as fourth grade and Swiss high schoolers are ready to work upon graduation, having started their apprenticeships around age 15) the minimal apprenticeship programs currently available in the US are “marginalized and have almost no connection, or very limited or tenuous connections, to either our secondary-education or our higher-education systems,” says Mary Alice McCarthy, who directs the Center on Education and Skills at the think tank New America.

Despite these perceived drawbacks and challenges, the Department of Labor is ready to help those organizations that do want to begin apprenticeship programs.

The Benefits of Apprenticeship Programs

First, the benefits to individuals:

The benefit most widely touted is “college without debt.” Apprenticeships always include some form of higher education; sometimes the ratio is 1:1 (equal amounts of time in the classroom and on the job) and sometimes the proportion varies one way or the other. Many apprenticeships culminate in a two-year degree, but the length of time to achieve it may not be exactly two years.  If one is enrolled in an apprenticeship, the employer pays for most, if not all, of the tuition with the associated college. Generally employers partner with local colleges (such as community or technical colleges).

Another individual benefit is “earn while you learn.” All internships are paid positions. The apprentice does not make the same wages as a fully qualified individual in the role, but that is offset by the amount of tuition they are the beneficiary of. Also, once the apprenticeship is completed, the individual’s compensation usually rises substantially.

Other advantages include having a “foot in the door,” having re-marketable skills (although, as cited earlier, most apprentices stay with the employer that trained them), and a work-record that aligns with their degree (as opposed to most college graduates who have a degree but no real-world work experience).

Likewise, there are substantial benefits to the employer:

One of the most attractive benefits of instituting an apprenticeship program is the ability to “grow your own.” Even if companies can find qualified individuals in the general population, oftentimes they come with abilities that don’t mesh with the new employer. For example, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system in Lebanon NH runs a 15-month long apprenticeship program to train medical coders, pharmacy techs, and medical assistants. The program was instituted to fight the constant battle of trying to find appropriately skilled individuals in the local area, but the health system’s director of workforce development also cited the challenge of hiring workers from other hospitals in the area who “often don’t have the same level of competence.”

An apprenticeship program also ensures a steady-stream of skilled individuals for the key roles an organization has identified. Rather than trying to beg, borrow or steal already trained employees from other organizations (which doesn’t ensure the “ideal” candidate and can cost tens-of-thousands of dollars in recruiting, interviewing and onboarding costs) an employer knows the quality and capability of the apprentices in their pipeline. Apprentice programs quell the panic of “where will we find xxx?”

Apprentices have also been “schooled” in the company culture, work-ethic, values, processes, etc. Many employers cite these intangibles as “invaluable.” For instance, at Bosch, a manufacturing organization with facilities in Germany as well as South Carolina, US, a mistake on the factory floor can potentially cost a million dollars; the director of the apprenticeship program says that the company is confident in the skills as well as the level of responsibility their apprentices have when on the job. In many ways apprenticeships offer a substantial return on investment.

Apprenticeships are no longer limited to manufacturing or construction, as in the past. Today’s apprenticeships prepare individuals for careers in healthcare, IT, financial services, insurance and more. In fact, instructional design would make an ideal apprenticeship topic because it is a nuanced skill with much theory to know and practice required to master.

Finally, the Department of Labor is ready with grants and support to help organizations begin apprenticeship programs. The DOL cites benefits such as attracting a new and more diverse talent pool, investing in talent that keeps pace with industry advances, and closing gaps in workers’ skills and credentials which undermine productivity and profitability.

Apprenticeship Programs Align with Teaching Thinking Skills

Many of the approaches and benefits of apprenticeships are also built in to a teaching thinking curriculum.

The extended timeline for learning (years, not days or hours), the on-the-job experience and practicality, the incorporation of coaches or mentors, teaching soft-skills such as teamwork and self-management, the structured nature of the learning process which ensures that all participants are learning the same skills in the same order and on the same timetable, the focus on white-collar jobs, and more.

Soft skills are actually better taught in a business environment than they are in a classroom. In a classroom the consequences are very different.

How to Get Started

If your organization would like to explore the possibilities of an apprenticeship program, call us, or go to the Department of Labor web page for resources such as a Quick-Start Toolkit, a list of tax incentives and credits, and information on how to access federal funding to build your program and / or pay stipends to your learners.