The apprenticeship renaissance: Why a time-tested career pathway might be the best way to close talent gaps

As talent gaps grow ever wider and retaining talent becomes more challenging, the tried-and-true apprenticeship model offers the best way forward for companies and employees alike.

Over the past decade, enrollment in one employer-sponsored type of education and training program has nearly doubled — and it’s probably not the one you think.

Companies are increasingly seeking competitive advantage by investing in a range of education programs; among these, one time-tested option is seeing significant growth: apprenticeships. According to data released recently by the Department of Labor, the number of active apprentices has grown 98 percent from 2013 to 2022.

Apprenticeships allow individuals to learn while they earn by receiving supervised on-the-job training and education related to both their specific role and the industry more broadly. And while they’re often associated with skilled trade occupations, today, new apprenticeship models are providing a clear path to family-sustaining jobs in high-growth fields such as health care, financial services and information technology. Nearly 15,000 new apprentice programs have been created in the past five years across a range of occupations, from skilled trades to high-tech fields and emerging industries.

For young people joining the workforce, these learn-and-earn programs can serve as a faster entry point directly into a career without burdening them with college debt. For tenured workers, apprenticeships can offer an opportunity to reskill into new roles. And for employers, apprenticeships reduce onboarding costs — because apprentices make an impact right away — while serving as valuable talent pipelines that produce workers who are guaranteed to have the skills companies need.

Apprenticeships have proven their worth to American workers and companies. In fact, 92 percent of registered apprentices stay on the job after completing their programs. A recent study found that two- thirds of companies that hired apprentices reported a positive net return in both direct and indirect benefits.

The stars might be aligning for apprenticeships. A 2022 survey conducted by Multiverse found that three out of four young Americans would skip college if their dream job was attainable post high

school. While less than half of young adults were familiar with apprenticeship, nearly 80 percent of survey respondents — including 79 percent who held a college degree — said they would have been interested in becoming an apprentice had it been an option after high school. The data suggests that apprenticeships could be poised for significantly more growth if properly supported and promoted.

It’s abundantly clear that apprenticeships can work for both companies and workers. Here are three reasons why:

Apprentices can be taught the precise skills they need to succeed on the job.

In postsecondary education, students are tasked with completing an assignment, such as writing a paper, taking a test or doing a project. Making the deadline and submitting high-quality work is the goal. Success on the job, however, is about much more. It involves navigating relationships with managers and coworkers, satisfying customers and solving complex and often unpredictable problems.

For these situations, what’s needed are durable skills such as communication, collaboration and leadership that persist across roles and functions and throughout someone’s career. These are abilities that get scant attention on a college syllabus. And despite what hiring managers might presume, it’s not automatic that someone with a college degree has already mastered these skills.

Apprenticeships allow a new employee or an employee in a new role to get coaching around these durable skills. This enables them to put things in practice in a layered way that’s impossible when learning is disconnected from the workplace.

Apprenticeships eliminate the distance between learning and implementation.

College students often learn knowledge they’ll never be able to use in their careers or won’t have a chance to implement until years after they acquire it. Moreover, students in the classroom often have little real-world job experience where they can meaningfully apply their new learnings.

With an apprenticeship, it’s often a matter of hours between learning something, trying it on the job, getting feedback and getting better. Apprentices also rapidly build up their stores of on-the-job experience that equip them to learn more sophisticated skills and tackle more complex tasks more quickly.

Apprenticeships require the private sector to shoulder more of the burden of talent development.

The modern education system, because of tuition and student loans, puts the financial onus on the learner. But a significant reason for the existence of the nation’s colleges and universities is to prepare people to do the work the economy needs. Trained and educated workers are a significant benefit to the companies that hire them.

When it comes to apprentices, companies are responsible for compensating them and covering their expenses related to their learning experience. Apprenticeship providers, meanwhile, must ensure their curriculum remains market-relevant. If companies are footing the education bill for their apprentices, they will demand training programs that are most effective at teaching the technical and durable skills specific to company and industry needs.

There are never any guarantees when it comes to talent management. But there’s a reason apprenticeships have endured: they offer companies a stable talent pipeline and employees paid opportunities for meaningful career advancement. As talent gaps grow ever wider and retaining talent has become more challenging than ever before, the tried-and-true apprenticeship model offers the best way forward for companies and employees alike.