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Jobs without people. People without jobs. There’s a mismatch between the skills people have and the skills companies need.

Back in February of this year, ManpowerGroup reported US talent shortages were at a 10-year high, with more than two-thirds of employers struggling to fill positions. That situation is unlikely to have eased during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, from the employee’s perspective, traditional paths to acquiring professional skills are losing their luster. Many Americans are changing or canceling their education plans due to COVID-19, according to an ongoing longitudinal survey by Strada Education Network, and just one in three college students say their institutions are “very good” or “excellent” at linking education to a meaningful career. Less than 20 percent of college students feel their education will be worth the cost, according to the survey. Clearly, there’s not a lot of confidence in higher education’s ability to help close the skills gap.

What are employers to do?

The Skills Gap Equals Unprecedented Opportunity

The students who are reconsidering college’s efficacy are actually already showcasing critical skills for future workers: They’re embracing the necessity of pivoting and upskilling through continuous training.

The way we work and the types of jobs we hold are transforming under the influence of globalization, economic change, and technological advances. Astute employers realize that navigating the evolving economic landscape will require building pipelines of workers with 21st-century skills, and they are looking beyond conventional college grads to recruit the talent they need.

Along the same lines, local and state governments are investing in programs and policies to expand career pathways. For example, the American Association of Community Colleges and the Department of Labor are partnering to create a revamped network of apprenticeship opportunities over the next few years.

Targeted career and technical education (CTE) and apprenticeships offer viable paths forward as companies try to close skills gaps while recovering from the economic effects of COVID-19. These programs create a more seamless match between the skills employers need and the skills the workforce is actually developing.

Apprenticeships are a uniquely adaptable model of skill development, and they’re not just relevant to the trades. Modern apprenticeships allow employers to connect with students, recent graduates, military veterans, and workers looking for a fresh start, and then mold these candidates into the specific kinds of talent they need.

Businesses with apprenticeship programs often report higher levels of workforce productivity, innovation, and employee retention, according to “It’s Time: Using Modern Apprenticeships to Reskill America,” a report I released with my company, IWSI America. Furthermore, those who become apprentices say they have better employment options upon completing their programs.

Modern Apprenticeship Demystified

A modern apprenticeship is a work-based training program that prepares individuals of any age to meet sophisticated talent needs. They’re available in a vast range of 21st-century industries and occupations, including cybersecurity, healthcare, data analytics, hospitality management, green sciences, engineering, and advanced manufacturing.

These apprenticeships are customized and supervised. They offer paid on-the-job training at reduced or no cost, as well as wages that increase in step with skills gained during training. These programs range in length depending on the employer and industry. Detailed, work-based training components are determined by the employer or industry sponsors and apprentices.

One-size-fits-all isn’t the right approach to creating a modern apprenticeship program. They’re all about customization. However, a few fundamental steps are common to getting any modern apprenticeship program off the ground:

  1. Work out which occupation you’re looking to create an apprenticeship in (the Office of Apprenticeship has a handy list of officially recognized occupations).
  2. Find your internal project team, which should include staff from direct service, middle management, and leadership. Together, they’ll develop and roll out the program.
  3. Identify external partners like community colleges, high schools, civic and nonprofit organizations, state apprenticeship organizations, and even apprenticeship intermediaries if you prefer to go down that route.
  4. Recruit mentors and coaches you can count on to check in with apprentices.
  5. Be clear about the qualifications and core competencies you want your apprentices to develop. Be reasonable.
  6. Access or create relevant curricula to drive on-the-job training goals, which will become your performance measures.
  7. Figure out your training schedules and wage scales.
  8. Craft your marketing and recruitment strategies.
  9. Establish a plan for monitoring, evaluating, and tweaking your process based on feedback and outcomes.

If you want to ensure your apprenticed staff earn nationally recognized industry credentials upon completion, you will need to register the apprenticeship program with the Department of Labor. Support is also available from organizations such as the Urban Institute, which can assist employers in selecting occupations and identifying competencies for occupational proficiency.

You’ve heard the mantra, “Don’t waste a good crisis.” The pandemic is an unprecedented moment for us to reimagine how we can reshape America’s economy for the benefit of all. Modern apprenticeships and CTE can help us close even the most pernicious and persistent skills gaps.

Nicholas Wyman is president of IWSI America and the author of Job U.

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