AD: What do most people think of when apprenticeship programs are mentioned?
Nichols: In Europe, apprenticeship programs are a natural course toward secondary education, secure employment, and career advancement for both blue-collar and white-collar careers. In the U.S., the first thought is blue-collar careers, lower starting wages, and the stigma behind not getting a college degree — something that is considered a vital credential for a middle-income job.
More recently, however, the white- vs. blue-collar color lines are becoming blurred. Apprenticeship programs not only open doors to careers. They also create opportunities for blue-collar workers to advance to white-collar professions — with or without a college degree.
AD: It’s been noted that advanced manufacturing companies are experiencing — and will continue to experience — difficulty finding skilled workers. How will apprenticeship programs help to alleviate this problem?
Nichols: The skilled labor shortage has multiple layers, including the retirement of current knowledge workers.
Recent studies show an estimated 2.7 million jobs in manufacturing are likely to be needed as baby-boomers retire. The apprentice/mentor model is a perfect forum from which to create a direct knowledge transfer.
There’s also the changing perception of job security in the manufacturing industry, which was once considered a safe career bet, especially for those who chose to not pursue a college degree. Many Americans who have witnessed plant closures now consider the industry a career risk. Apprenticeship programs are built with security, advancement, and highly transferable skills in mind.
Finally, there are talent shortages and concerns over emerging skills — 65 percent of tomorrow’s workers will have jobs that don’t exist today. The thrill of advanced manufacturing is something that can re-define the industry for our next generation of talent — Gen Z. They are a generation poised, anxious, and naturally inclined to the skills brought on by advanced manufacturing.
AD: What are the specific benefits of apprenticeship programs?
Nichols: Employers benefit from more structured training programs, more efficient recruitment practices, and increased retention. Apprenticeship programs are proven to enhance workforce loyalty, performance, and productivity. This, of course, all feeds back to the bottom line.
Individuals have the opportunity to learn in a real-life environment and get paid to earn credentials and/or college credits — without the need to incur college debt. Apprenticeship programs also ensure greater opportunity for advancement and future employability. Communities that adopt apprenticeship programs enrich relationships between employers and educators, reduce unemployment, and attract and retain a well-trained workforce as a basis for economic growth.
AD: How do these systems function in Europe?
Nichols: The European apprenticeship systems have grown to become a natural part of educational culture and traditions.
Of course, each country has its own set of standards and policies. That includes the legal frameworks, qualification and certification standards, public and private funding obligations, training models with intermediaries, employers and educators, and work training contracts between the apprentice and the company. These systems work to regulate the cooperation and coordination of key stakeholders, and to enhance efficient governance and management structures.
AD: Should U.S. companies model their programs on those in Europe?
Nichols: The U.S. has historically modeled apprenticeship programs from Europe. It was part of our nation’s heritage, and it will continue to be a part of our nation’s future. We need to continue to use those models from which to catch up and further develop our own systems. European countries, overall, are a lot further along than we are in program development. They’ve spent decades developing and enhancing program quality and effectiveness. So, we should consider how to learn both from their current successes and past failures.
While countries such as Germany and Switzerland are most identified with apprenticeships, it’s unlikely the U.S. can copy these models because of their deep roots in the education system. The UK model is more closely aligned with U.S. employer expectations, as it’s largely run by the private sector. With one of the most expansive apprenticeship systems in the world, the UK trains slightly more women than men in over 300 occupational fields offered in apprentice roles. These include entry-level positions right through to management, and industries that have been around for less than a decade. Supporting the system are more than 1,000 intermediaries that establish, manage, and deliver apprenticeship programs on behalf of employers — standing between the employer, the apprentice, and the government.
AD: Can U.S. training and educational programs already in place be incorporated into the apprenticeship model?
Nichols: Yes, but it will take time and adjustment. Refining dated programs and building current curriculum, collaborating and remaining abreast of employer needs, and evaluating performance criteria to meet credit standards are some examples of the cohesiveness that is required.
AD: How can businesses, educators, and economic developers work together to develop apprenticeship programs?
Nichols: Collaboration, communication, and commitment are needed. They need to collaborate to make apprenticeship programs a collective commitment as opposed to an isolated conversation, and to seek out third-party advisors that have the expertise and experience to help coordinate a collective goal that is set up for success.
AD: What specific steps does a company need to take to establish an apprenticeship program?
Nichols: First a company must determine if apprenticeships, as a strategy, meet their workforce needs, and if the roles they need to fill are “apprenticeable.” A company must then identify key partners — intermediaries, training providers, community colleges, workforce agencies, apprenticeship agencies, or community organizations — to help knit together all of the resources.
A company should next develop program components for the specific role to include standards or core competencies, training plans (on-the-job and related technical instruction), individual learning plans (milestones, wage progression, credentials), mentor plans, and ongoing assessment and recruitment plans.
The company can then recruit the first cohort for program implementation and completion. Regular evaluations are needed to ensure milestones are being met, and skills learned in the classroom are being applied in the workplace.
AD: Are there any examples of successful programs that you could highlight for our readers?
Nichols: South Carolina’s Schaeffler Group’s apprenticeship program applied classical European and American apprenticeship training concepts. Initially, the program focused on tool and die makers, then skilled set-up machinists, and, more recently, electrical-mechanical and programming. Since inception, more than 300 apprentices have been recruited with a 90 percent graduate retention rate. Graduating apprentices received a two-year associate’s degree from NETC, and an Apprenticeship Journeyman License from the U.S. Department of Labor.