December 15, 2016
Bypassing College for a Professional Job
But a recent panel made up of British and American employers and other experts made the case that U.S. employers in myriad professional fields – health care, social care, information technology, law, medical exercise therapy, lab technician, teaching assistantship, nursing, and finance – would benefit from thinking more creatively about providing apprenticeship training.
Apprenticeship programs are much more common among U.K. and other European employers. Microsoft Corp. is a big exception here: its U.S. program, modeled on what the company does in Europe, will graduate 1,000 apprentices next year, said Bill Kamela, Microsoft’s policy counsel for U.S. government affairs. Apprentices “have incredible intangible skills, and they’re incredible learners,” he said.
These programs seem more relevant than ever in the wake of U.S. and European elections shaped in part by blue-collar voters dissatisfied with their economic circumstances, said Tom Bewick, founder of New Work Training Ltd. in London, which arranges employer apprenticeships. Bewick moderated the November panel for the Urban Institute in Washington.
“Our working and middle classes are in revolt against stagnating wages, a lack of affordable housing and distant institutional structures that come across as elitist,” he said. Apprenticeships aren’t a “silver bullet, but they are surely one of the practical responses to this set of challenges.”
And despite all the hype around getting a college education, not everyone is suited to college – nor are college degrees always the best preparation for the labor force. Graduates of apprenticeship programs supported by the U.S. Department of Labor are earning $60,000 per year, on average, said John Ladd, the program administrator. The Office of Apprenticeships that Ladd oversees has established 5,000 new programs in the past three years, he said.
In tight labor markets when it can be more difficult to find high-quality job applicants, U.S. employers might particularly benefit from apprenticeships, which give them additional time to get to get to know their trainees and to make better-informed hiring decisions. Apprenticeships also bring in “a higher class of applicants,” said panelist Robert Lerman, founder of the American Institute for Innovative Apprenticeship. Further, he said, both employers and employees are better off when workers train for the specific skills needed in individual work settings.
While U.S. apprenticeships are dominated by the building trades, according to Bewick, several panelists said the real need is in professional fields. In the fast-changing legal profession, apprenticeships work well for positions falling under the generic “paralegal” umbrella, said panelist Joyce Thorne, vice president of global human resources for Elevate Services, a U.K. legal services company. Two types of legal apprenticeships requiring non-legal skills are managers of legal matters within a law firm or corporation – say, someone to oversee a class-action pharmaceutical lawsuit – and people with project management skills to coordinate and complete legal projects.
Some employers prefer hiring apprentices over college graduates. The owner of a medical exercise training company who was in the audience was one such employer. “Our apprentices get 500 hours hands-on to understand the pathology of issues, patient background, expectations of doctors,” he said.
The apprenticeship program at Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital in Lebanon, N.H., focuses on medical assistants. But the mathematics critical to being a pharmacy technician are also best learned on-the-job, said panelist Sarah Currier, director of workforce development for the hospital. “They don’t get this experience at a four-year school.”
David Willett from the U.K.’s Open University warned against employers making college vs an apprenticeship an either-or choice. His organization offers four-year degrees, with half of the learning in the classroom and half at an employer. To further integrate the two, tutors from academic settings come into workplaces to help their students apply what they learn in the classroom to real-world work problems.
“There is a growing recognition that learning by doing is a good thing and learning by doing while earning money and actually producing stuff is a cost-effective way to learn occupational skills,” Lerman said. Perhaps rock-bottom unemployment will persuade more U.S. employers to give them a try.
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