Long-Term Hiring: How Modern Apprenticeships Can Help Close the Skills Gap

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Recruiting during the COVID-19 crisis has been gut-punchingly difficult for HR leaders around the globe. The legacy of the pre-pandemic skills shortages lingers on, and new black holes are emerging in the economy as businesses are forced to cut staff or close up shop altogether.

At the same time, however, businesses in some sectors are experiencing tremendous growth. Think Amazon, which is making $10,000 every second, according to The Guardian . Is there any rhyme or reason as to who survives and thrives and who doesn’t at this moment?

There is: The brave few who look beyond the short term when it comes to recruitment are the ones who will come out on top.

I believe modern apprenticeship has a lot to offer organizations as a recruiting model right now. Forget what you think you know about apprenticeships: Modern apprenticeships are lower-risk and cheaper than traditional recruiting. They allow you to upskill and pivot employees quickly in these fluid times — all while increasing loyalty, as employees will understand you’re making them more marketable. Importantly, apprentices can allow your business to hit the ground running when the economy starts firing on all cylinders again.

Traditional Recruiting Approaches Can’t Meet the Challenges of the Moment

As you reevaluate your recruiting process, you want to start by considering where your company sits in the economy. Are you in one of the safest sectors — the industries that humans will always need? Taking a cue from the quirky but original Buckminster Fuller, I see the safest sectors as: education, health, shelter, entertainment, energy, and food. Sectors that serve the safest ones — such as how transport serves food and  telecommunications serves entertainment — are also safer by association.

Get a sense of how sectors and their spin-offs are morphing in the current climate. If your company is not in one of the industries of human need, can you see a link from your organization to one of those sectors? Does that give you more confidence about recruiting?

Now that you’ve tackled the big-picture strategic questions, it’s time to think about how you’re filling critical roles. Traditionally, recruiters are looking for a certain kind of person to fill a vacancy: someone who is skilled up from the get-go, ready to start working right off the shelf. But even the best candidates don’t always fit that bill. Most new hires, regardless of experience level, will need time to adapt to your company’s culture and processes before they become productive.

The traditional approaches used to cultivate talent — schooling or on-the-job training — are out of sync with evolving employer needs. As a result, employers are having difficulty filling open jobs with qualified people who have both relevant skills and workplace experience. Many communities can’t attract or retain businesses because of mismatches between the skills employers need and the skills locals have. That means employers around the world and across industries can’t find the skills they need to be fully productive and meet long-term goals.

The rapidly changing nature of work requires businesses to get more creative about their recruitment, hiring, and talent development strategies. It’s time to rethink who you target and how.

The Benefits of a Modern Apprenticeship

Modern apprenticeship offers a new approach to workforce development that nurtures a person’s calling, equips them with the technical and interpersonal skills employers need, and prepares them for lifelong learning and success. In turn, businesses, local and regional communities, and the economy as a whole are strengthened.

A modern apprenticeship is a work-based training program designed to teach individuals of any age the skills that businesses need. Modern apprenticeships aren’t one-size-fits-all programs; rather, they are tailored to each individual business’s needs. That said, each apprenticeship is based on the same common fundamentals:

  1. An apprenticeable occupation is identified
  2. An internal team is set up to develop and roll out the program
  3. External partnerships with community colleges, high schools, civic and nonprofit organizations, state apprenticeship organizations, and other organizations are identified and engaged
  4. Mentors and coaches are identified
  5. Candidate qualifications are outlined
  6. Core competences to be achieved are identified
  7. On-the-job training goals, performance measures, and related criteria are created
  8. Training and scalable wage levels are developed
  9. Marketing and recruitment strategies are developed
  10. Ongoing monitoring and evaluation processes are created

Modern apprenticeships disprove the stereotypes surrounding apprenticeship today — e.g., that apprenticeships pay low wages, are mostly in the trades, drain company resources, are only for young people, etc. In a modern apprenticeship, apprentices are set on clear pathways to employment and long-term career success, and taking on an apprentice is much cheaper than hiring a college graduate.

Modern apprenticeships are available in a broad range of 21st-century industries and occupations, from cybersecurity and healthcare to data analytics, hospitality management, engineering, and many more. Small, medium, and large companies are using modern apprenticeships to ramp up their workforces, including such prominent names as LinkedIn, Lockheed Martin, JPMorgan Chase, Amazon, and Mailchimp.

My company, IWSI America, recently studied a range of businesses to see how they’re benefitting from modern apprenticeships. While the programs do require investments of time and money to get off the ground, they also deliver substantial returns. For example, our report found the modern apprenticeship program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical nearly paid for itself within the first year. Other benefits include better overall company performance, increased employee engagement and productivity, lower turnover, and diversified workforces.

Mailchimp launched a modern apprenticeship program in 2013. In Mailchimp’s program, employees spend 90 days working on projects with a new team to build on-the-job tech skills and soak up knowledge. Once the 90 days are up, the employee can return to their old role or stay on their new team if their manager agrees. As a result of its program, Mailchimp has seen some unexpected moves, like a support quality control specialist morphing into a junior operations project manager and a quantitative research analyst becoming a security engineer.

It’s surprisingly easy to tap into modern apprenticeships, too. Millions of dollars are available from the Department of Labor  (DOL) to help initiate or ramp up modern apprenticeship programs. Employers can also tap into the DOL’s new Youth Apprenticeship Intermediary Project  to outsource some of the management of apprentices. Mindful of the need to support remote work in the current environment, some companies are also looking into virtual apprenticeships.

The resources, funding, and know-how are out there. Modern apprenticeships can close the skills gap and connect companies to the steady streams of qualified workers they need to survive and thrive through COVID-19 and beyond. It might not be as tricky to revitalize your recruiting process as you think.

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

By Nicholas Wyman