Young apprentice learning to operate a CNC machine

Opinion: Rediscovering apprenticeships – An old school workforce strategy getting lots of love in a tech-driven economy

'Apprenticeships are not mere steppingstones to careers. Done right, they can create pathways to long-term social and economic mobility.'

Call it a tale of two labor markets: Even as global markets are clouded by increased uncertainty, employers are still having a hard time finding workers to take millions of unfilled jobs. While talk about “quiet quitting” and the Great Resignation has faded, there are still far more open jobs than there are qualified workers to fill them.

To solve these modern-day labor market problems, a growing number of employers are turning to a decidedly old-school way (and perhaps unlikely) of training and developing talent – apprenticeships.  With origins in the artisan guilds of medieval Europe, apprenticeship is seeing a surge of new interest in an increasingly high-tech economy. 

While these programs have deep roots in the skilled trades and manufacturing jobs of America’s industrial golden age, they are becoming a new favorite for a growing number of employers who see them as a way to bridge the gap between our system of education and their own hiring needs.

According to U.S. Department of Education data, the number of apprenticeship programs in the U.S. has grown 73% since 2009. The number of active Registered Apprentices grew by 51% during the same time period. Household names like Lockheed Martin, Google, Amazon, and Airbnb are just a handful of the hundreds of companies nationwide embracing apprenticeship with renewed enthusiasm.

But despite their resurgence, there’s also reason to believe that these programs have not been as inclusive as their vast potential might suggest. Indeed, making apprenticeships work in today’s modern workforce means we should acknowledge the types of disparities that too often persist nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century. 

As Ryan Craig, author of Apprentice Nation: How the “Earn and Learn” Alternative to Higher Education Will Create a Stronger and Fairer Americarecently wrote, federal, state, and local government investment in higher education outstripped that of spending on apprenticeship by a ratio of 1,000:1.

Federal data from 2020 analyzed by nonprofit Jobs for the Future sheds light on a concerning reality: Women are now nearly half of the U.S. labor force, but account for just 9.2%of active apprentices. Similarly, despite participation in apprenticeship programs at rates comparable to their white counterparts, Black, Latino, and other people of color face lower completion rates and subsequent employment challenges.

Ensuring that apprenticeships achieve their full potential means more than just simply making these programs more numerous and more accessible. We also must find ways to ensure equity in employment and wage outcomes. Expanding access to Registered Apprenticeship programs can help to improve wage and employment outcomes for individuals from communities that have historically been the least well-served.

Apprenticeships are not mere steppingstones to careers. Done right, they can create pathways to long-term social and economic mobility and pave the way for a future where merit and talent truly reign supreme. 

By democratizing access to these opportunities, we are not only shaping a more skilled workforce but also fostering a society where everyone can thrive. The evolution of apprenticeship programs demands collective effort. Employers, policymakers, and communities need to find ways to not only build apprenticeship programs, but ensure that the workers and learners who participate have both the support and resources needed to succeed. 

At Aon – a company of 50,000 employees in 150 countries that is one of the largest global insurance brokers and where I serve as vice president of global early careers – we have tapped into the power of apprenticeship to help fill critical gaps within our talent pipeline.

The company is investing in non-traditional, “white collar” apprenticeships and has also helped other companies to build and launch high-quality pre-apprenticeships and youth apprenticeship programs through strategic partnerships with organizations such as OneTen, One Million Degrees, JPMorgan Chase, and the Chicago Apprentice Network.

By collaborating with hyperlocal nonprofit organizations with deep reach into the community, we are not just expanding access to apprenticeships, but ensuring that our talent pipeline is more reflective and inclusive of the community that we call home. A citywide engagement with One Million Degrees has made it possible for us to host a cohort of apprentices from City Colleges of Chicago at our Chicago office hub. 

This program is making it possible for students from this highly diverse, urban community college system to access apprenticeship opportunities. Each apprentice receives personal guidance, coaching, and academic support while also earning wages and learning the skills needed for entry-level roles within the company. Each apprentice has access to a Career Advancement Coordinator and Aon mentor who helps them to provide career advice, mentorship and sponsorship as they explore these career paths. 

This is just one example of how companies can ensure that students can not only access apprenticeship programs – but ultimately to complete them and to reap the economic and career benefits.

Meghan Parrilla, VP, Aon

As companies navigate the complex labor market dynamics of a rapidly-evolving workforce, time-tested models like apprenticeship are getting a fresh look. And employers are beginning to quickly learn that investing in programs that can build and sustain a more inclusive local economy is not just an act of corporate beneficence, but a matter of economic prudence and competitiveness.

Companies have a profound responsibility – and opportunity – to recognize the immense untapped potential within our communities and provide them with both the tools and opportunities needed to thrive. But in order for apprenticeships to achieve their true potential for creating a more inclusive and flourishing workforce, employers must lead the charge. 

Investing in apprenticeships isn’t just about helping to build the future workforce. Ultimately, it’s about expanding opportunities for a more equitable, diverse, and prosperous economy. 

Meghan Parrilla is vice president of global early careers at Aon

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