Just days before a Nov. 9 phone call with HR Dive, Nick Wyman took a walkthrough of a car dealership with a group of potential apprentices.
He and the rest of the group watched as a technician looked under a car's hood while wearing a device that allowed workers at a distant German factory to see exactly what the technician saw. "The kids were fascinated by it," said Wyman, president and CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills & Innovation America, a workforce development organization.
It's the type of in-person learning experience fostered at many apprenticeship programs, something that became difficult to maintain as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the U.S. Other talent development models, such as internships, moved online at many organizations, with HR teams allocating company resources and space on digital platforms to do so. Traditional employee learning programs did the same, with employers largely increasing the share of training done via webinars, e-learning and other formats.
Yet it's clear to executives that online formats can't recreate every aspect of learning and development that occurred when worksites were full of employees. The same is true of apprenticeships, according to Wyman.
"As far as sweeping generalizations that online learning is the new normal, I don't necessarily agree with that," he said, adding that apprenticeship programs require more than classroom-style learning experiences. "It is about learning by doing, and unless you have the doing part, it's just learning."
Apprentices see elements of a given job in the workplace that they might not encounter in a program that focuses on traditional classroom learning alone, Wyman said. The technical skills apprentices need are also changing in many fields due to the growth of technologies like robotics and automation, and it may be more difficult to train on both these technical skills as well as "soft" skills without access to a physical workspace.
Amid the challenges posed by the pandemic, the week of Nov. 8 marks National Apprenticeship Week in the U.S. In the past year, the apprenticeship model has been embraced in new partnerships and was the subject of a long-anticipated regulatory shift at the federal level. According to Wyman and others, however, there's still work to be done if apprenticeships are to grow.
A year of transformation
Federal data shows that apprenticeships are growing on the national stage. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 252,000 individuals entered apprenticeships in fiscal year 2019, representing 128% growth since 2009, with more than 12,000 apprenticeship programs created during the preceding five-year period.
It's a model that has been embraced by organizations outside of traditional trades such as construction and carpentry. In 2019, HR Dive spoke to officials in Iowa about the development of pharmacy technician apprenticeship programs in the state in collaboration with CVS. Another case study highlighted the development of apprenticeships at insurer The Hartford.
"Apprenticeships have in the past five to 10 years seen a boom across different industries," said Katie Spiker, director of government affairs at the nonprofit National Skills Coalition. Industries such as healthcare have used the programs to help meet talent needs, she noted, while those operating in industries like construction have had to pivot their programs in some ways to perform other tasks, such as manufacturing personal protective equipment.
Programs across the country "had to be creative" in continuing in-person learning operations, Spiker said. She cited the example of a welding program at an Oregon community college that has gradually been increasing student access to the classroom. Other programs have sometimes opted to embrace distance learning, and some are adjusting completion timelines to account for disruptions.
Additionally, DOL earlier this year finalized a rule updating the process by which it recognizes apprenticeship programs. Alongside the agency's existing registration process for apprenticeship programs, DOL's rule established a system by which standards recognition entities such as businesses, trade associations and educational institutions may establish, recognize and monitor certain apprenticeship programs. These programs are known as industry-recognized apprenticeship programs, or IRAPs.
DOL's decision to establish the IRAP program was controversial long before its implementation, with some industry groups criticizing the overhaul. In August 2019, the Apprenticeship Forward Collaborative, a national network of organizations that includes the National Skills Coalition, stated concerns that the program would fragment the U.S. apprenticeship system while introducing "programs of widely varying quality."
Fast forward to October 2020, DOL announced the launch of the first apprenticeship program to be recognized under the IRAP model — a program run by Raytheon Technologies with recognition by the National Institute of Metalworking Skills. Spiker said it is too soon in the IRAP program's launch to tell whether it will have a positive impact on apprenticeship programs in the U.S., but did say there are concerns about quality and that the program may introduce unnecessary confusion.
Wyman said that while IRAPs "are probably okay" due to the emphasis DOL has placed on quality and involving industry groups in the process, apprenticeships must have commitment between employers and employees in order to be successful. "Apprenticeship isn't a pathway to a job; it is a job," he added.
Growing successful partnerships
Equally important to the success of apprenticeship programs is the relationship between employers and educational institutions, Wyman said, despite the fact that there may be a disconnect between the two groups.
"Employers and educators need to come together," he said, adding that employers need to be clear about what positions and skill sets they need, while classroom education alone can't provide all of the context apprentices need to grow into their roles. "You can't have a classroom idly learning and call it an apprenticeship." But it's on companies to take the right approach to workforce development; "some of that responsibility must fall back to employers," Wyman said.
To improve the chances of successful program development, the two sides may need to enlist intermediaries such as nonprofits, workforce boards or industry associations. "These collaborative partnerships are definitely part of the secret sauce to making this all work, but too often it takes an intermediary to bring these groups together," Wyman said. "Having [an intermediary] in the mix as well as employers and educators really adds to a robust program."
Beyond establishing such partnerships, employers also need to ensure that pathways to apprenticeships are accessible for all workers, Spiker said. Workers may have barriers to entry in the form of childcare responsibilities or logistical hurdles such as transportation. The next presidential administration, she added, "needs to make a concerted focus and effort to address a lot of these barriers to true access to apprenticeships."