Apprenticeships Are a Growing, Attractive Solution for U.S. Employers
#evolve Magazine
March 09, 2023

Once seen as an option solely for training young workers for “blue collar” jobs, apprenticeships are rapidly becoming a new way for employers to gain skilled employees for a wide variety of roles and from a diverse pool of candidates who possess a range of education and experience levels.

From hospital administrators to technology companies, all sectors are struggling to find employees who possess the requisite skills and training — and “many are turning toward apprenticeships to fill their needs,” said Julie Lammers, senior vice president, Advocacy and Corporate Social Responsibility, American Student Assistance (ASA).

For example, apprenticeships increasingly are being used to find new talent in the tech industry and for tech roles across all industries. This trend was accelerated and highlighted by a 2022 White House initiative called the Cybersecurity Apprenticeship Sprint, which successfully positioned tech apprenticeships as a workforce solution to the growing cybersecurity talent shortage. As a result of the Sprint, 194 new cybersecurity registered apprenticeship programs have been approved or are under development.

According to the White House, the Sprint also resulted in over 7,000 apprentices being hired, 1,000 or so from the private sector. Of these private sector apprentices, 42% were people of color and 32% female. Prior to the Sprint, 27% of all cybersecurity apprentices were people of color and 28% women, which reflects the impact the power of the public and private sector working together by partnering with community-based organizations to reach diverse populations.

Several employers, federal agencies and other organizations were also able to accomplish critical cybersecurity workforce needs. For instance, McDonald’s Corp. will launch its first registered apprenticeship program in the U.S. in cybersecurity, bringing in high-performing talent from Chicago City Colleges to McDonald’s headquarters; and IBM’s apprenticeship program, which launched in 2017, has expanded to 30 registered apprenticeship roles including data science, design and cybersecurity.

The mounting demand for properly skilled tech workers is the biggest driver for the corporate attitude-change toward apprentice-trained workers, according to a recently-published Korn Ferry analysis.

“With the pace still growing, organizations need specialists in coding, programming, and robotics, to name a few technical areas. They also need experts with digital skills in sales, marketing, and logistics,” said the report. 

In the hospitality industry, apprenticeships are more common, especially in the culinary arts field.

“It’s one thing to understand the theory behind food handling, but another to earn real-world experience and actually deliver delicacies according to industry standards,” said Brian Nagle, CEO and HR manager of Restaurant Clicks, and business consultant in the hospitality sector. “As such, many institutions partner with businesses for apprenticeship programs, which may then turn into employment opportunities.”

In Nagle’s experience, apprentices often enter a program with limited prior knowledge, so they're easier to train and more receptive to learning new skills. In addition, they are more likely to remain with their first employer.

“This, in turn, helps the business lower their costs for continuous recruitment,” he said.

A Smart Employer Investment

According to Elizabeth Copson, senior associate at Abt Associates, a six-year study of the U.S. Department of Labor’s American Apprenticeship Initiative (AAI) found that employers experienced a positive return on investment and that apprentices’ wages increased. (Abt Associates led the study, and Copson also served as deputy project director for the AAI.)

The $175 million, five-year grants initiative extended apprenticeships to a range of nontraditional occupations, including manufacturing, information technology, healthcare, finance, transportation and logistics. It also promoted equity by expanding access to populations underrepresented in apprenticeships: women, people of color, veterans and people with disabilities. 

AAI’s definition of apprentice is an employee of the company from the first day of their apprenticeship. Apprentices are productively employed during their training and earn progressively higher wages as their skills increase. On average, AAI apprenticeship programs were 2.7 years long. Construction programs were the longest (4.2 years), followed by manufacturing (2.8 years). Computer/IT (1.4 years) and healthcare (1.2 years) apprenticeships were the shortest.

“Unlike other work-based learning experiences, such as job shadowing or some internships, apprentices produce output for their employers like any other employee,” Copson said.

Of the 68 employers surveyed in the study, 46 achieved a positive net return over the duration of the program. Copson explained that even when using a low valuation of apprentice productivity, two-thirds of employers gained financially from their registered apprenticeship investment. During the registered apprenticeship, 60% of employers recouped at least 80% of their costs and almost 40% recouped their full costs. The median return on investment is $144 for every $100 invested, Copson noted.

“The study shows that registered apprenticeship benefits workers and employers in a variety of industries,” she said. “In the current tight labor market, registered apprenticeship shows promise to help employers identify and develop workers for a variety of occupations.”

Case Study: Apprenticeships at Aon

Aon launched a successful U.S. apprenticeship program in 2017. To date, the multinational financial services giant has onboarded over 200 apprentices, with its largest cohort of over 100 apprentices. It has also expanded to six additional cities: New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco and Bloomington, Indiana. 

The U.S. Department of Labor has certified Aon’s program and named the company an apprenticeship ambassador. During National Apprenticeship Week in 2022, Aon hosted First Lady Jill Biden, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at the Aon Center in Chicago to discuss expanding apprenticeships.

“We’ve had many successes with our program,” said Meghan Parrilla, vice president of global early careers at Aon. “No matter the apprentices’ previous skills or experiences, our program offers positions within various solution lines — health, wealth, commercial risk and reinsurance, as well as functions within Aon, including IT and HR.”

The Aon apprenticeship program is an “earn-as-you-learn” model that combines formal in-classroom learning with on-the-job training. From day one of the program, Aon covers the apprentices’ full-time salary and benefits, paid tuition and fees to complete their associate degree, leadership exposure and a full-time permanent position at Aon upon successful completion of the program.

“The biggest benefits of this program are growing our talent pipeline, diversifying our workforce to increase resilience and seeing these colleagues grow and develop inside our firm,” Parrilla said. “Overall, apprenticeship programs drive workforce development and create economic opportunities in the communities we work and live in, while strengthening relationships between employers and their communities.”

Parrilla explained that one of Aon’s biggest challenges is ensuring future talent is aware of these opportunities, noting that local community colleges have been a great part of the ecosystem by sharing apprenticeship opportunities with their students, resulting in a rich talent pipeline.

“The apprentice network is used to build an ecosystem of employers, academic institutions and non-profit supporters in cities throughout the country,” she said. “As we continue to grow the network, our challenge will be ensuring future talent is aware of these opportunities in each apprenticeship city and corporations are aware of how they can build their own apprenticeship programs.”

‘Learn and Earn’

WTIA Workforce Institute & Apprenti is an organization that creates alternative pathways to access diverse tech talent. Apprenti works with employers who have tech hiring needs across a wide range of industries—not just at tech companies, said co-founder and executive director Jennifer Carlson.

Carlson explained Apprenti helps employers and prospective apprentices connect by first sourcing untapped talent, then training those individuals in relevant technical skills, and finally placing them on the job with the nation’s leading employers through Registered Apprenticeship, a Department of Labor recognized workforce solution.  

In her experience, Carlson saw an unexpected twist on apprenticeships: While often seen only as an option for those who opt out of college, apprenticeships also are now being used to supplement a college education.

“A college degree alone doesn’t guarantee that a graduate will have the skills that employers are looking for, so some companies are beginning to add apprenticeship programs to their recruiting programs at college campuses,” Carlson said.

ASA’s Lammers added, “Increasingly, we are seeing these learn-and-earn models as a growing solution that will get employers the workers they need, and young people the kind of education and training they desire.”

The ASA has also funded a number of organizations over the years, such as Propel America, which provides career training in the healthcare space, and the Center for Black Educator Development, which is building apprenticeship programs for high school students to grow the teacher profession. 

Organizations often create apprenticeship programs because they need to address a specific workforce or pipeline need and are looking to fill gaps in talent, Lammers said, adding that companies typically begin the process by reevaluating their entry-level positions and determining which ones don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

“Organizations then may choose to hire a cohort of individuals who they will train on site, or with a partner organization like a local community college to get the apprentices the training necessary to meet the company’s needs,” she said.

Most apprentice programs provide a salary and many also offer a job or the opportunity to interview for a job once training has concluded.

Getting paid while receiving training “is often a big incentive to get young people to participate,” Lammers said. “While their friends may be going off to college and paying tuition, the young people participating in an apprenticeship are already earning a paycheck.”

Editor’s Note: Additional Content

For more information and resources related to this article see the pages below, which offer quick access to all WorldatWork content on these topics:

Related WorldatWork Resources
Supporting Digital Nomads as the Great Resignation Comes to an End
How to Prevent Burnout for HR Leaders
Shifting the Workplace to Human-Centered Leadership
Related WorldatWork Courses
Committing to Pay Equity
Pay Equity Course Series
Understanding Pay Equity
Great Workplace Content, Delivered to You

Get the latest expert insights and analysis for leaders in HR, total rewards, business and rewards management — delivered straight to your inbox, for free. #evolve issues are published on a bi-monthly schedule.