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The Apprenticeship: An Underutilized Tool for Employers in an Uncertain World

Published Jun 28, 2021 by Susan Moore

Apprenticeships cultivate the talent and human assets of the future; Click above to watch the UpSkill Works Forum featuring Harvard Business School Managing the Future of Work Co-Leader Joseph B. Fuller

Following the adage ‘measure twice and cut once’ helps avoid the need to rework a project. In many cases, employers outsource their skills training to the education sector and hope for skilled talent to show up at the front door ready to work – only to find themselves needing to retrain individuals. Employers who utilize apprenticeship models, which blend education with paid work and mentorship, are building an entry-level workforce with the job-related and so-called “soft” skills they need; these employers are developing talent to their unique specifications and are seeing a return on their investment.

Apprenticeships in the United States are widely associated with trade and craft occupations including carpenters, pipefitters, and industrial machinery mechanics. The work-based-learning apprenticeship model, however, is an underutilized tool in other industries and can lend itself well to a much broader scope of job roles (e.g., customer service representatives, human resource specialists, medical transcriptionist, insurance underwriters, and sales representatives), while closing skills gaps and creating economic opportunity and mobility.

Research conducted by Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work project and Burning Glass Technologies and presented in the paper “Room to Grow: Identifying New Frontiers for Apprenticeships” explores the scope of potential for apprenticeships in the economy, revealing great opportunities for expanding and boosting the model to new industries and occupations. Houston’s employers can derive great benefit from working together to increase the use of apprenticeships in the region and support a more resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn. Through apprenticeships, employers can build the skilled workers they need while fostering a stream of talent for the future with multiple business, social, and economic benefits.

“You’re cultivating human assets of the future. Treat [your apprenticeship program] like an asset, invest in it, install it, understand how to work with it. Don't treat it like an expense,” Harvard Business School professor and co-leader of the Managing the Future of Work project Joseph B. Fuller said during an UpSkill Houston initiative UpSkill Works Forum conversation with Mary Beth Gracy, office managing director of professional services company Accenture.

 

Building future talent through apprenticeships

The general population tends to stigmatize or downplay jobs associated with apprenticeships because they do not require a bachelor’s degree; however, these jobs are critical to employers, and they pay a living wage. Employers who have specifically built apprenticeships develop a pipeline of highly skilled talent to meet business and industry needs.

Dow is a major employer that cultivates talent for some of the most sought-after technical specialties in the industry through its robust U.S. apprenticeship program blending formal education and paid on-the-job training. Dow partners with local community colleges, including Brazosport College, locally, where apprentices receive classroom instruction and in-depth, hands-on training as they work toward earning an associate degree.

Dow’s apprenticeships are certified with the U.S. Department of Labor, so individuals who complete programs become certified apprentices at the national level, meaning that their work and accomplishments would be recognized by employers beyond the company, Rich Wells, a vice president at Dow, explains in a program introduction.

“This is not an alternative to college, but rather a pathway to a debt-free associate degree and ultimately a robust career,” Wells says.

Fuller noted during the Forum that the work experience an apprentice gains can be invaluable for the apprentice but also even to an employer that did not sponsor the apprenticeship program. Employers can feel more confident in hiring a candidate who can show real job exposure over a candidate who cannot, he said.

Apprenticeships give employers a greater opportunity to assess a worker’s job skills and ability to learn than does a job interview, allowing employers to “test” a potential employee before hiring them for a full-time job – generally at a lower cost than hiring first and “testing” second. What’s more, Fuller said, apprentices are productive, and employers benefit from their work. Historically, in Europe, apprentices have been safe from workforce reductions because they represent a good return on investment, he said.

Employers have used apprenticeships effectively to boost diversity and expand underrepresented populations in their workforce, including women, veterans, and second chance jobseekers; one recent example is S&B Engineers and Constructors’ initiative to bring more women into skilled craft professions.

“Companies with apprenticeship programs very often report higher levels of engagement by their incumbent staff because they see that investments are being made in trying to both bring in young talent, but also to lift people up, and that's motivating for anyone to see,” Fuller said.

 

Recognizing potential for apprenticeship programs

Research conducted by Harvard and Burning Glass Technologies identified 27 jobs in the United States that are strongly influenced by apprenticeship programs, mainly in the construction and mining industries, but an additional 47 jobs – for a total of 74 – that have the potential to be effectively staffed through an apprenticeship model.

These occupations require clearly defined hard, job-related skills that can be taught through specialized training and are generally jobs that are not heavily licensed – requirements for state licensure can limit a worker’s geographic mobility. The positions identified by Harvard and Burning Glass tend to have lower-than-average turnover – potentially making the return on investment through an apprenticeship more attractive to an employer – and pay a living wage of $15 per hour or more.

Nearly half of these jobs require skills that can be learned without a bachelor’s degree; this set includes customer service representatives, tax preparers, and photovoltaic installers. And many of them are hard to fill, meaning employers could benefit from developing a pipeline of talent ready for hire.

For the rest, a bachelor’s degree is usually requested or preferred among job candidates though the general skills utilized on the job do not differ significantly between postings that require a bachelor’s degree and those that do not. This also suggests overall that these skills could be learned through an apprenticeship approach in contrast to requiring a bachelor’s degree and the wage premium an employer may pay. This group includes insurance underwriters, database administrators, and human resource specialists.

Many of the 74 jobs where apprenticeships are prevalent or that represent potential for apprenticeship expansion are among the nearly 50 “middle-skill” occupations within greater Houston’s economy with projected high-demand, high-volume need in the coming years identified in UpSkill Houston’s 2020 “Middle Skills Matter to Greater Houston” report.

 

New network supports Houston apprenticeship programs

Organizations ready to start apprenticeship programs can find support from the Greater Houston Apprentice Network (GHAN), a coalition of Houston employers, educators and non-profits powered by Accenture and Aon. Using education and non-profit relationships and an apprenticeship playbook, this network, which includes the Greater Houston Partnership, will help organizations define visions for their programs, identify best-fit roles for apprenticeships within their organizations, and develop and execute their program models.

“Apprenticeships are a tried-and-true model that is scalable for any organization,” Dawn Spreeman-Heine, a Managing Director of Corporate Risk Solutions at Aon’s Houston office, said during the Forum. “You really don't have to start from scratch.”

 

The GHAN will hold an official launch event and information session in August 2021 featuring employers who have launched successful apprenticeship programs, apprentices, and workforce development leaders.

UpSkill Houston is the Partnership’s nationally recognized, employer-led initiative that mobilizes the collective action of employers, educators, and community-based leaders to strengthen the talent pipeline the region’s employers need to grow their businesses and to help all Houstonians develop relevant skills and connect to good careers that increase their economic opportunity and mobility. Its “My Life As…” career awareness series features stories shared by apprentices in construction and petrochemical manufacturing fields at TRIO Electric, Dow and INEOS. See them here.

See all previous UpSkill Works forums here.

Executive Partners