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3 best practices for launching an apprenticeship program

Ali Bokhari
Ali Bokhari leads the Advanced Technology Centers at Accenture Federal Services and has deep expertise in workforce development.

The Great Resignation shows no sign of abating. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs by the end of 2021 and virtually all employment sectors face workforce shortages.

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Despite this, millions of people throughout the U.S. have the desire and capacity to be employed in hard-to-fill roles, if only recruiters could find them. The unemployed and underemployed want to work and possess—or could develop—many of the skills that current employers seek. Unfortunately, recruiters often look past a growing pool of job candidates, dubbed America’s “hidden workers.” These are job candidates who come with family care responsibilities, employment gaps, disadvantaged backgrounds, minimum job qualifications and health challenges.

But empowering hidden workers with high-demand skills can significantly help companies bridge their skill gaps. Research shows organizations that recruit and empower hidden workers are 36% less likely to grapple with talent shortages.

Related: 3 ways to hire hidden talent and boost your bottom line

Apprenticeship programs that train hidden workers in high-demand skills are a proven talent solution that can mitigate the skills gap for organizations large and small. Combining online instruction with on-the-job training, employers that sponsor apprentices gain skilled workers, reduce talent turnover and improve productivity. Apprenticeships also tend to expand workforce diversity, providing underserved groups with greater access to innovation-economy jobs. Diversity of thought and backgrounds are a tremendous advantage for any organization.

Workers benefit by receiving a skills-based education that prepares them for good-paying jobs. Apprentices also graduate with a sense of belonging as a member of a community of practice. Importantly, there are no educational, age, economic, social or skill prerequisites for people to qualify for apprenticeships.

For these reasons, apprenticeships are expanding in the U.S. The number of apprentices registered with the Department of Labor has surpassed 636,000, a 64% increase from a decade ago. There is also a rise in non-registered apprenticeships through consortiums and individual employers for both blue- and white-collar jobs.

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Still, investing in and successfully launching an apprenticeship program is a heavy lift for any company. These best practices can make implementing one more successful:

Partner up. Many organizations lack the internal expertise or resources to attract non-traditional talent, such as dislocated workers, caregivers returning to the workforce, veterans and community college graduates. Forging meaningful partnerships with groups that are already connected to hidden workers pays dividends in overcoming this hurdle. Partner ecosystems, which include labor organizations, industry associations, educational institutions, and state and local agencies, can identify the resources necessary to design apprenticeship programs that meet employers’ needs through robust collaboration. Then, tailored recruitment strategies can be developed and executed to attract hidden talent within the local communities these partner organizations serve.

Partner ecosystems are also essential to delivering the wrap-around services for apprenticeship participants—providing everything from transportation to childcare to Wi-Fi access—to ensure apprentices are set up for success.

Embrace ‘earn and learn.’ It’s often just not practical for candidates interested in an apprenticeship to forgo an income for an extended period of time. Here again, a community partner ecosystem approach can be critical by not only training participants but also ensuring they earn while they learn.

Also see Why HR shouldn’t fear the Great Resignation

Perhaps consider offering two distinct paid apprenticeship tracks. Apprentice-in-training (AIT) programs can provide participants with a paycheck as they receive on-the-job training in high-demand skills. For example, in the tech sector, these skills include Salesforce, Python and ServiceNow. The goal is for AIT graduates is to become readily employable. Most become skilled enough to earn a certification, such as Salesforce or ServiceNow admin certifications, which are highly marketable. By the conclusion of the AITs, we find about 95 percent of the people completing the program are ready for employment.

The AIT program also serves as a pathway to a one-year, salaried apprenticeship program. Apprentices are empowered with immersive on-the-job training, as well as professional learning and development, with an opportunity for full-time employment where they can progress through a company’s career model, unencumbered by their non-traditional background.

Measure program progress. To support the successful launch and continuous improvement of any apprenticeship program, implement and share expectations of what progress looks like for both the program’s participants and the program itself. For the individual apprentices, define and implement clear metrics for success; then systematically monitor and assess their performance with performance evaluations. Regularly deliver feedback to the participants on both hard and soft skills, much as your company does for its employees. Also, be sure to assess the effectiveness of classroom versus on-the-job training for apprentices and calibrate as needed. Don’t be afraid to adjust if something isn’t working.

Companies can gauge the success of their apprenticeship programs by calculating the costs of developing and supporting the program against the benefits the program delivers by evaluating the apprenticeship program against other alternatives for acquiring and developing a highly skilled workforce. Additionally, deploying formal and informal surveys for you to receive candid and constructive feedback from all program stakeholders will provide a firsthand analysis of the program’s strengths and weaknesses.

Related Apprenticeships: A new solution to old challenges

Apprenticeships have come a long way since the U.S. apprentice system began 75 years ago. Thoughtfully designed apprenticeship programs can help your organization—and the communities in which you do business—mitigate labor challenges. More broadly, they’re an essential component in building a competitive, future-ready U.S. workforce and a more inclusive innovation economy.

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