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Apprenticeships: A new solution to old challenges

Sophie Ruddock
Sophie Ruddock is the vice president and general manager of Multiverse North America. Multiverse (formerly WhiteHat) is a tech company building an outstanding alternative to college.

Has the market for hiring ever run so hot? Whether it’s the so-called Great Resignation or skilled labor shortages from hospitality to tech, HR leaders responsible for hiring and developing staff have never been more pivotal.

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An exec at one big tech firm told me they could hire every computer science graduate in the country and still have open seats. Meanwhile, too many employers spend resources and funds on hiring recent graduates and other entry-level employees only to have them leave the company one to two years after they start.

In the search for answers, we’re in danger of overlooking a solution that is right in front of us: the old concept of an apprenticeship that has been updated for the modern age.

While apprenticeships have been with us for centuries, the fastest-growing areas are now in tech and professional services. They offer talented individuals the chance to get trained while they work, and kickstart their career without a traditional four-year college degree. Companies, meanwhile, access diverse talent, trained in the specific skills needed for their business challenges.

The frontline in the talent battle is access to new recruits. For too long, companies have held themselves back by allowing academic institutions to act as gatekeepers for who gets access to a great career. This has tightened the supply of talent and prioritized academic credentials, which have little to no correlation to job performance.

Instead, companies that make use of apprenticeship programs get access to a wider pool of talent and, crucially, can make hiring decisions based on criteria that really have an impact on performance–focusing on grit, rather than grades.

Early talent hired via apprenticeships tend to be radically more diverse than those brought on through other means. Degree requirements in job ads screen out 67% of Black Americans and 79% of Hispanic Americans. HR leaders whose organizations use them are missing the chance to hire some of the most talented individuals.

The equation for a young person makes sense: Faced with the choice between enormous college debt and uncertain employment outcomes versus a well-paid job, a great education through applied learning and community experience, it’s no wonder the latter route is becoming more popular.

See also: How can HR leaders ensure a safe, successful holiday hiring season? 

But if attracting new recruits is the first part of the solution, the next challenge is how HR leaders ensure they are tackling the skills gaps organizations face. Apprenticeships can mold new hires to the roles they actually need to fill while focusing on their organization’s specific requirements. It beats relying on uniform, outdated education models.

The apprenticeship model works because the learner gets one-on-one guidance from a coach, and skills are embedded through immediate application in the workplace. Against online platforms or classroom simulations, repeated professional practice in real-world situations ensures that learning sticks. Quite simply, it is the best way to learn. This is particularly true when it comes to tech and business skills, where textbook study is a poor alternative to cultivating skills in real life.

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Finally, there’s a crucial win in terms of retention and internal progression. By training apprentices from the start of their career, companies inspire loyalty. As full-time employees, apprentices tend to remain in their posts for twice as long as traditional hires.

Education as a benefit is a live issue for people leaders right now. But what matters is outcomes: Apprentices are a proven way to get people into real careers.

It’s this clear return on investment that’s seen apprenticeships grow as a route for reskilling and developing existing staff; ultimately, apprenticeships don’t just have to be for new hires.

Related: Shortage in tech talent pushing HR to creative recruiting strategies

Again, this makes sense: The traditional college system provides a single shot of learning at the start of a career. But at a time of radical technological transformation, four years focused on acquiring knowledge rather than skills will not set people up for multiple decades in work.

Technological shifts happening right now require firms and employees to work together to adapt skill sets through a lifelong learning journey.

It’s not just the right thing to do–it makes financial sense too. Individuals who participate in apprenticeship programs are more likely to continue on with their employer beyond the entry-level phase of their career, creating stronger employee retention and saving companies funds in the areas of onboarding and reskilling.

Ultimately, the clearest return on investment comes from the efficiencies in building skills in-house versus purchasing them externally. Companies receive up to $11.50 return on each $1 investment in apprenticeships through reduced spend on external consultants and the development of valuable skills in their workforce.

Crucially, the lift doesn’t have to be heavy either. A growing number of organizations exist to lighten the load for employers, performing the essential elements of a successful apprenticeship program, from identifying high-potential, exceptional talent through to curriculum development, training and program management.

There’s a transformation going on in technical education. The apprentice of the future is more likely to wield a keyboard than a toolbelt. Whether it’s for recruitment or retention, professional apprenticeships have a role to play in every organization’s talent strategy.