Apprenticeships Can Be Expanded to Nontrade Jobs: Report

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek December 7, 2017
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What jobs lend themselves best to the apprenticeship model? How about medical equipment preparers and repairers, nuclear medicine technologists, chemical technicians and insurance sales agents?

These jobs are not typically associated with apprenticeships, but they are among occupations whose deep but narrow skill sets make them suitable for an "earn while you learn" training mode, according to a new study.

"There is significant, unrealized potential in the apprenticeship field across many occupations in the U.S. economy," according to Room to Grow: Identifying New Frontiers for Apprenticeships, a report released Nov. 29. Joseph B. Fuller, co-director of the "Managing the Future of Work Project," a multiyear initiative at Harvard Business School (HBS), and Matthew Sigelman, CEO of analytics software company Burning Glass in Boston, conducted the study.

They examined skills that were required in postings for more than 23 million jobs in 2016 and identified underlying skills that could be developed through apprenticeships.

Based on this skills analysis, there is significant opportunity to expand apprenticeships in the U.S., the research found. Additionally, apprenticeships could help fill positions that employers find difficult to staff.
 
The model offers prospective employees "a more viable alternative to trade and technical schools" because in a technical school system students miss out on work experience while they attend school, or they work but can only attend school part-time, they said in their report.

Fuller, a professor of management practice in general management at HBS, and Sigelman developed the following set of criteria to identify occupations that have the potential for apprenticeships: 

  • The occupation is not heavily licensed. Licensure represents a separate credential "that may reduce the value of the apprenticeship as proof of a worker's qualifications, while adding an additional layer of government approval onto the process."
  • The occupation has a relatively narrow cluster of clearly defined, consistent skills. The scope of training and teaching is manageable, and the skills can be obtained through specialized training, such as apprenticeships.
  • The occupation requires skills that students can obtain by earning a high school diploma or associate's degree. Apprenticeships often are intended as an alternative path to a four-year college degree, the report noted, and jobs for which most employers require an advanced degree likely involve a range of skills ill-suited to apprenticeship training.
  • The occupation tends to have higher-than-average employment tenure and lower-than-average turnover. This make the investment in an apprenticeship more attractive to employers, the report noted.
  • The occupation pays a living wage of $15 or more per hour. The investment of time and effort required for an apprenticeship does not make sense when applied to low-paying jobs, the report noted. 
Based on the above criteria, Fuller and Sigelman identified 47 career fields where apprenticeships could be offered: 
  • 21 occupations were in what they called the "expander" group whose skills can be gained at a sub-baccalaureate level,  jobs such as customer service representatives, solar photovoltaic installers and medical secretaries and transcriptionists. 
  • 26 occupations were what they called "boosters." Unlike "expanders," this group commonly requires a bachelor's degree and includes jobs such as computer user support specialists, database administrators, graphic designers, HR specialists, insurance underwriters and legal secretaries. 
"Each of the jobs in these two groups requires a skillset that is narrow and deep," with expertise needed in two or three areas, Fuller said.

Creating Apprenticeships 

Apprenticeships have started springing up in nontrade union jobs.

Global hospitality company Hilton Worldwide pledged in 2016 to set up the first U.S. apprenticeship system in tourism and to launch 370 apprenticeship positions over the next five years in areas such as culinary arts and housekeeping.

Samsung Tech Institutes provide technical training in areas such as software development and computer programming and in 2014 launched a two-year web designer training program in France.

And The Hartford, the Connecticut-based property and casualty insurance firm, plans to bring 200 apprentices onboard by 2020.

The report suggests that an apprenticeship approach is a way for organizations struggling with skills gaps to ensure workers are trained to the employers' specifications. This is done by partnering with local educators to create a curriculum and on-the-job training program that aligns with employers' needs.

"You need to be able to tie underlying competencies someone needs to perform those two or three tasks [for the job]," define a structured program that allows a trainee to work alongside an experienced employee and augment that training with classroom-type work, such as at a community college, Fuller said.

However, "it's very important that a significant component of the work be in the place of business, not in the community college," he told SHRM Online. Work-based learning is a way for the employer to get to know the job candidates during training and for the apprentice to get to know the employer, he pointed out.

"By having the opportunity for the company to interact with that person and have them exposed to … your team, your colleagues … it allows [the organization] to make an informed hiring decision," Fuller said.

 "That's really important because a tremendous percentage of failed hires are failing because of soft-skill deficiency," such as a lack of punctuality, an inability to receive criticism or an inability to work with others.

He advised starting a pilot apprenticeship program, with HR working with stakeholders who can advise on the types of skills necessary for the apprentice to develop. An employer can use that knowledge to develop a program with an outside resource, such as a community college or vendor.

The timeframe for an apprenticeship can vary from six to 12 months, or longer if the program is blended with academic training that is spread over several semesters, Fuller said. Apprentices usually get an hourly wage but not many benefits, he said.

The U.S. has a Registered Apprenticeship system that he said many employers find cumbersome, but "no law says you have to have a registered program."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Using Government and Other Resources for Employment and Training Programs]

Initially, productivity will suffer at the beginning of an apprenticeship program because the apprentice will not perform as quickly as an experienced employee and the work of the employee who helps train the apprentice will be slowed. But creating a program gives the employer more control over the talent pipeline.

It's important that employers remember that apprenticeships are a longer-term investment, Fuller said.

"It's hard to get skilled workers and, in many instances, the traditional sources of talent are not always generating candidates who have the combination of hard skills and soft skills to be attractive hires," he said. The question for employers is "am I going to continue to rely on my traditional strategies for identifying qualified candidates, or am I going to broaden my toolkit?"

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