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Apprenticeship getting more attention as way to bridge the skills gap

It’s a familiar lament coming from employers: They struggle to hire people with the skills they need even when jobseekers line up at their doors. The skills gap has been a worry for years, and employers, educators, workers, and government officials have long touted apprenticeship as at least part of the solution.

But the concept has been getting even more attention lately, with the Obama administration’s announcement on April 21 of plans to devote $90 million included in the 2016 fiscal year spending bill to apprenticeship programs.

The announcement says $60 million of the total will support state strategies to expand apprenticeship, “including funding for regional industry partnerships and innovative strategies that diversify apprenticeship locally.” The other $30 million will go “to catalyze industry partnerships in fast-growing and high-tech industries, to support organizations focused on increasing diversity, and to launch national efforts to make it easier for employers to start and for workers to find apprenticeship opportunities.”

New targets for apprenticeship
Manufacturing and construction trades have long used the apprentice model—training workers while also giving them the opportunity to earn a paycheck. Employers, in turn, get motivated workers who have proved themselves capable of performing the work employers need. But now apprenticeship is gaining traction in more fields. A March 2 post on the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) blog tells of an insurance giant’s use of the apprenticeship model.

“Many people still associate these programs with industries like the skilled trades, but the fact is, employers in hundreds of other fields are discovering how apprenticeship programs can cultivate talent trained specifically for their needs—and the insurance industry is no exception,” Mike Foley, CEO of North America Commercial and regional chairman of North America for Zurich Insurance Group, wrote in the blog post. “This year, at Zurich Insurance, we are excited to add ourselves to this growing and diverse list.”

The Zurich Insurance program includes 24 students who are working at the company’s North American headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois, while working toward an associate of applied science degree in business at nearby William Rainey Harper College.

In his blog post, Foley points out that an insurance company using apprentices is “novel in this country,” but the company’s program is based on a successful model operating for many years in the company’s Switzerland headquarters. “In Switzerland, we employ more than 200 people in the three-year program that provides an insurance-focused training certificate to those that complete the program,” he wrote. “Eighty percent of graduates from the most recent program found employment with Zurich.”

Traditional programs still an option
Even as apprenticeship gains fans in new fields, it remains an option for both employers and workers in the fields that have traditionally used the model. One such program trains workers for electrical jobs in Nashville, Tennessee, an area where construction is booming. That economic climate is fueling demand for the apprenticeship program offered by the Nashville Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, according to Stephen Hall, assistant training director for the program.

Participants in the program, which is registered with the DOL, combine hands-on work with classroom training, and they earn a paycheck while they train, Hall says. Once accepted, program participants are placed with a contractor for employment, and they attend three hours of classes two nights a week for five years. Half of the tuition is paid by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union and half is paid by the National Electrical Contractors Association. Apprentices have to pay for some books and lab fees, but otherwise the education is free.

Apprentices also earn a paycheck. The pay in 2016 for beginning apprentices is $12.35 an hour, a figure that increases at various phases of the program. Fifth-year apprentices in 2016 earn $19.80 an hour, Hall says. In addition to wages, beginning apprentices get single coverage medical, dental, vision, and prescription insurance at no cost. If they need family coverage, they can buy it for an added monthly charge, but after completing two years of school, family coverage is provided at no cost. Generous retirement accounts also are part of the program.

Bridging the skills gap
Hall says programs such as his can be a godsend for employers hampered by the skills gap since the apprenticeship program turns out skilled workers with five years of real-world experience. They don’t have college degrees, but they will have earned 47 hours of college credit.

Hall has a message for employers suffering from the skills gap: “We are here to bridge that gap. That is our mission, to bridge the gap and to create and build a quality-educated craftsman.”

Most participants chose the apprenticeship program instead of college, Hall says. Some, though, earned college degrees and then decided to enter the apprenticeship program because they had trouble finding jobs without having work experience.

Hall says his program has started working with high school guidance counselors to get the word out about alternatives to college. The message he wants to convey to high school students is: “There is a path that you can take that is tuition-free, that you will learn a trade and become a productive member of society, and be able to retire.”

The majority of the contractors who take on apprentices have gone through the program themselves, Hall says, and that shows why employers should be glad to consider people who have completed apprenticeship programs, instead of limiting their hiring pool to college graduates.

“The majority of the people stay with us and continue on in the electrical industry. We had one graduate a few years ago who started his own business right out of the apprenticeship program,” Hall says.