How to launch your own apprenticeship program

Setting up an apprenticeship program is not as hard as you might think, says Andrew Sezonov, Vice President, Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation America:

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Feb 20, 2024

With the double-whammy of continuing skills shortages and continuing low unemployment (it was just 3.9% in October), there’s a growing school of thought that says US businesses could do worse than consider creating and managing their own talent pipeline.

Creating a talent pipeline not only means more predictable organizational growth, but thought it, businesses can also shield themselves from having to ‘pay-up’ for talent that they now urgently need, after exhausting their searches within.

But what is the best mechanism? I would argue it’s through an apprenticeship program.

Research shows employers who invest in apprenticeship programs benefit from substantial returns on their investment.

A systematic review of 30 years of registered apprenticeship programs in the US found these advantages for businesses and apprentices:

  • Higher performance levels of apprentices, such as better productivity, flexibility, and problem-solving ability
  • Better pipelines of skilled, engaged, and loyal employees – with who know the workplace culture and don’t need as much supervision
  • A boosting of workers’ soft skills.

In addition to all this, an Urban Institute report also recently found there were a host of indirect benefits too – top amongst which is lower staff turnover.

Its study of 68 employers that hired apprenticeships found six in 10 employers recouped at least 80% of their costs, while 40% recouped their full costs.

Sounds good, but how to start?

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Bureau of Labor Statistics data (2022), reveals there were 600,000 active apprentices in almost 27,000 registered apprenticeship programs in our country.

But while all these firms will understand the benefits of apprenticeships, and all the benefits above sound promising, it’s also well known that many employers are put off from setting up their own in-house apprenticeship programme – often seeing it as a difficult thing to do.

But while it’s true that there is ‘some’ work involved, CHROs don’t actually need to reinvent the wheel. There’s a lot of corporate knowledge out there, but within guardrails as I’ll explain below:

The essential preparation

Rather than be outward-looking and seek funding for a program, consider doing a business health check first.

Red flags that could indicate a company is not quite ready to host an apprentice are a lack of commitment, structure, resources, and culture to do so.

Here’s how to prepare to grow your own apprenticeship program:

  • Ensure management discusses the benefits and challenges to the business
  • Communicate across the organization about the value of apprenticeships to raise awareness and foster support
  • Source testimonials from staff who have completed apprenticeships. Ask how it benefited them and the company
  • Cast the net wider for others to join the project team
  • Work out which roles/occupations could be apprenticeable in your company (search the official government website for information if you need inspiration – there are thousands of roles)
  • Assign in-house mentors/supervisors with expertise in those occupations, and
  • Set up your project team with ‘sponsors’ from across your business to drive the next stages.

Bridging gaps

Another possible issue is that mentors/supervisors may be a generation or two older than the would-be apprentice.

As such, you need to ask yourself if your company run a training program to upskill mentors/supervisors about young adults’ communication and working styles.

The key here, is that you need to aim to understand both sides’ expectations about their role in a workplace.

Another consideration is that you need to tap into your networks, industry associations, and do desktop research (including looking at job ads), to see if your competitors have apprentices too.

Get a sense of what they do to boost recruitment and retention, such as with pay rates and incentives.

Anecdotally, I’m seeing more employers valuing their apprentices by offering above-award pay rates, and professional development scholarships.

Organizations are also casting a wider net to attract would-be apprentices, looking to increase their workforce diversity.

Some have targeted programs for people with disabilities, people who are minorities, or those who have experienced, or are experiencing, disadvantage.

IWSI America’s recently updated Reading, Willing and ABLE report explains how we’re going about working with the California Department of Rehabilitation to boost apprenticeships for people with disabilities in that state.

Partnering for support

Now, it’s time to look more broadly for resources, support, funding, and any required tweaks your workplace culture needs.

Keep in mind here that you won’t need to develop your apprentice training program from scratch. The Department of Labor’s apprentice occupation standards comprise 75% of what you need, so tailor the rest to your business needs.

Next, search for training providers, such as community colleges and private training providers, who can help train apprentices in the skills your workplace needs.

They’ll be able to help refine the training program to your needs, as will a group apprentice intermediary organization, if you choose to use one.

Accessible local training is crucial. The further their site is from your workplace, the greater the hurdle for your future apprentice to complete their training.

Finally, the training provider you select should also welcome your in-house mentors/supervisors for a tour of their facilities and open a discussion about training.

Ideally, the latter would become familiar with the training provider’s site – everything from how it runs, to what it offers, so they can relate what the apprentice will experience there.

All providers should liaise with the apprentice’s supervisor should there be any wins or issues, and vice versa.

Registering your program

It’s important firms running apprenticeship programs share their success stories as well as chronicle the challenges they have faced.

So, once your program is approved, build relationships with your local talent pipeline.

Go to local schools, community-based organizations even sporting groups because that’s where your candidates are most likely to come from.

You’re not done yet

Once you’ve recruited your apprentice, and have checked with them about any support or accommodation they need, it’s time to get the show rolling.

Adapt your standard welcoming program to the apprentice, seeking regular feedback from them, their supervisor, and co-workers for continuous improvements.

Use that feedback to bolster your retention strategies, too.

And, yes when you feel it’s all going well, promote your success to your network and beyond.

Further reading

Curious about how registered apprenticeship programs have fared over the past 30 years?

This review of the research offers some deep insights

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