Use Apprenticeships to Mitigate the Skills Gap

Companies look to apprenticeships as a bridge over the skills gap.

As companies across industries consider how to safely close the widening skills gap threatening their business, some see apprenticeships as a probable solution.

For instance, multinational insurance company Aon focuses quite heavily on potential candidates coming out of four-year institution with a bachelor’s degree, said Aaron Olson, the company’s chief talent officer. “Yet we have work where getting stated at Aon and getting started in our industry really doesn’t necessarily require starting off with that four-year bachelor’s degree,” he said.

In March, Aon and Zurich North America, another insurance company, asked Chicago-based business leaders at a roundtable event to consider apprenticeships as a way to develop untapped talent for their organizations. Apprenticeships, traditionally considered a pathway to trade work, have increasingly become an alternative pipeline for professional organizations to build their next generation workforce. The U.S. Labor Department reports that 150,000 employers and labor management organizations participate in its Registered Apprenticeships program — companies including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Chrysler, General Electric, Walgreen Co. and Whirlpool.

Aon is already using apprenticeships as a talent development tool. Building on its partnership with City Colleges of Chicago, the company plans to roll out an apprenticeship program in January 2017 that will employ 25 students. Aon’s work-study model will involve 20 hours on-site and 20 hours in the classroom every week. Olson calls it a “balanced experience.” “Apprentices are paid for the work they do, but Aon is subsidizing the education they’re getting at school at the same time,” he said.

At the end of the two-year program, the student will earn an associate degree and have two years of industry experience. Olson said the combination creates a strong foundation, especially because students will have worked in several jobs within the organization during that time.

Both employers and students benefit from work-study apprenticeships. Olson cited a retention rate for former apprentices that is higher than Aon’s average retention rate for the roles students will be working in. “We actually find that people stay with organizations longer when they come in through an apprenticeship model,” a result that he said can be attributed to the unique investment relationship between the employer and apprentice, he said.

The Labor Department reports that apprenticeships can do a number of positive things for business. They:

  • Help recruit and develop a highly skilled workforce.
  • Improve productivity and the bottom line.
  • Provide opportunities for tax credits and employee tuition benefits in some states.
  • Create industry-driven and flexible learning solutions to meet national and local needs.

Olson said the use of apprenticeships likely will trend upward in the United States as issues around workforce readiness and college expense prompt employers to look creatively at recruitment and development. Apprenticeships allow people to get start “earning and learning” and allow companies to connect with a wider pool of prospective workers earlier in their career.

“We’re looking at the opportunity to reach folks who are looking to enter the workforce out of high school but who might find the cost of a four-year bachelor’s degree prohibitive,” Olson said. “This provides a very appealing entry point for somebody in that kind of situation who might be very talented but finds it economically challenging to get started.”

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email