This article was published on May 19, 2019

Apprenticeships are critical to America’s future as a knowledge economy

This is the best way forward

Apprenticeships are critical to America’s future as a knowledge economy

An exciting trend is emerging in the US workforce: over half a million workers are using apprenticeships to acquire valuable experience and a pathway to a steady job. They’re earning money while learning critical, in-demand skills.

In spite of this progress, a stigma remains. For generations, common wisdom has held that a college degree is the best path to professional success; apprenticeships have been considered a second-class option for less-desirable, blue-collar jobs.

As teachers, workers, employers, and students, we must change that narrative and embrace apprenticeships as the path to the new-collar – or specialized skills-based – jobs of the future, such as software engineers, data analysts, and registered nurses, to name a few.

This isn’t an idealistic pitch for a shift in educational policy; the reality is our country has a concrete, demonstrable need for tech works. The tech industry is projected to generate eight million new jobs by 2023 – jobs for which our current university graduates are often woefully unprepared. reports there are more than 500,000 open computer science jobs, but only 63,744 students graduated with computer science degrees last year.  

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This massive shortfall has led companies to open their doors and drop requirements in hopes of enticing new talent. Global tech leaders including IBM, Google, and Apple no longer require employees to hold a minimum of a four-year degree. Instead, the companies offer on-the-job training for any applicant with the right combination of experience, skills and attitude.

In addition to major players such as Google and IBM, startups such as Postmates and auto companies such as Toyota and BOSCH are offering apprenticeships to train and develop the next generation of workers. The Consumer Technology Association — which I work for — is also contributing to this movement by creating the CTA Apprenticeship Coalition in partnership with IBM, designed to help our member tech companies create, build, and scale apprenticeship programs.

I believe this not only broadens the applicant pool – it diversifies it, making it easier for people with varying experiences and backgrounds to work together to develop innovative solutions. It’s an approach more companies need to adopt.

Rather than simply looking to buy talent with high salaries, competitive benefits and unique opportunities, companies must also be willing to build the talent they need in this tight labor market. This might sound radical, but companies have to train college grads anyway. Apprenticeship is a cost-effective way to tailor a workforce to the specific needs of a company.

This is not to say that college is all bad. I hold a college degree and consider my time at university as one of the most formative periods in my life. But more and more Americans are finding that a university degree doesn’t always hold up to the cost-benefit analysis. A recent survey revealed that 42 percent of Americans feel their college degree wasn’t worth the debt they took on.

And when you consider Americans collectively hold an astounding $1.5 trillion in student debt, such cynicism makes sense. We need teachers, guidance counselors, parents, and influencers to recognize apprenticeships as an equally valid alternative that prepares students for meaningful employment and wages that can sustain a family.

No matter your industry or field, your company can create an apprenticeship program. And you don’t have to register your program through the Department of Labor, though their resources and support can be helpful.

Companies can build these programs themselves in five easy steps:

  • Select an apprenticeship model (time-based, competency-based, or a combination)
  • Create a competency framework of the necessary skills and knowledge
  • Choose a training provider (whether an external source like a community college or via online training)
  • Establish an internal mentorship program
  • Establish a pay schedule that increases as knowledge mastery is achieved

It might sound complex, but it’s really no more challenging than deciding what skills you want to teach, who can teach them and to whom you can teach them.

Apprenticeships are one of the oldest education models in the world. Before the Industrial Revolution, everyone from blacksmiths to painters learned their trade by working alongside a skilled master.

To prepare for the future, we must learn from the past, adapting this pre-modern model for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Only then can we prepare the students of today to thrive in the workforce of tomorrow.

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