Apprenticeships are a hot topic in business media. They had already been growing in popularity in the years leading up to 2020, rising steadily in numbers since 2011. Despite a lull during the pandemic, they are again being hailed as a way to help facilitate economic recovery, particularly in terms of helping employers fill more positions in local regions and industries where there are specific kinds of shortages.
While apprenticeships can indeed play an important role in aiding economic recovery and addressing labor shortages in specific regions and industries, they can also be a powerful way of improving DEI objectives, which many companies had pledged to prioritize at the height of the Black Lives Matters protests in 2020. Simply having an apprenticeship program, however, isn’t guaranteed to achieve these objectives, and the particular ways that apprenticeships are carried out make a big difference on their outcomes.
For employers that want to maximize the benefits of apprenticeships to meet their specific needs, they would do well to look to higher education and to do so in ways that go against past conventions.
Look beyond the bachelor’s degree
In the past, employers have traditionally viewed the bachelor’s degree as a credible pre-screen. By expanding that view to include the associate degree, particularly in conjunction with apprenticeships, they can tap into a larger and more diverse body of talent much earlier along the pipeline. Community colleges are where most Black and Latinx students start their higher education journey regardless of their GPA. Many ambitious, high-achieving students choose community colleges for various reasons. By focusing on the bachelor’s degree, employers miss out on a tremendous pool of talent, not to mention an opportunity to improve their DEI outcomes.
Moreover, by looking to community colleges to fill apprenticeships, employers can not only tap into a broader and more diverse talent pool, they can be key players in furthering the ongoing training and education of those students. A very high percentage of Latinx young adults, for example, express a desire to attain a four-year college degree. Many, though, have to interrupt their education for various reasons such as financial pressures or family duties. Nearly half of Latinx students who go to college therefore attend community college as it is often seen as a cost efficient path to begin their careers sooner and support their families while also attaining some kind of credential, if not a four-year degree.
Apprenticeship partnerships with community colleges could therefore be a way for companies to not only take advantage of this broad talent pool earlier on but to also facilitate the continuing education of employees they end up hiring this way. After all, four-year institutions are now counting on two-year transfers in a way that they’ve never had to before. By working with higher education institutions to form apprenticeships that are credit-bearing and transferable, those employees can eventually gain new skills and credentials through upskilling or reskilling and then apply them at the same companies. We know from research that employers who invest in the ongoing training and education of their employees inspire greater loyalty from those employees. This could be a way that everyone wins: employers, four year colleges, community colleges, and students.
Collaborate with higher education institutions
Fortunately, there are existing models of collaboration in specific industries that employers and higher education institutions can both learn from. With the increased need for nursing staff during the pandemic, for instance, hospitals and health systems reached out into their respective communities to develop apprenticeship programs in collaboration with community colleges so that students could earn while they learned. This opened up the nursing field to a more diverse student population. While much of this may have been driven by sheer necessity, the saying that “necessity is the mother of invention” is quite true.
While there are many specific actions that both companies and schools can take to create fruitful collaborations, there needs to be a highly structured and organized system with both sides clearly communicating what their needs are and what they expect out of the partnership. There must be quick feedback loops so that both sides are constantly kept aware of the outcomes in real time. Because of this, point persons, or even entire teams, are needed on both the college and employer’s side whose roles are devoted to making the collaboration work. All this is easier said than done. Collaboration can be very challenging, particularly now with the added complexity of hybrid learning and working situations.
One way that employers and schools can navigate these complexities is to go through an intermediary specifically designed to facilitate collaboration. An example of such an intermediary is an organization for which I previously served as founding executive director, Year Up in New York City. This organization partners with both colleges and employers to place students in apprenticeships in the business sector. Another example is Jobs for the Future (JFF), a well established anchor intermediary and knowledge center for apprenticeships, where I am also a board member. There are numerous such intermediaries out there, some of which receive support from the government in its current commitment towards strengthening apprenticeship programs in the US. Employers seeking potential partners or intermediaries can use resources such as Apprenticeship.gov’s Partner Finder.
When something becomes a trend, it is tempting to want to jump on the bandwagon as quickly as possible. However, to ensure that the trend is not just a passing fad but a lasting development, businesses should invest the time and care to go about the process in a way that leads to the desired outcomes.
Lisette Nieves is the President of the Fund for the City of New York (FCNY), an institution charged with developing and helping to implement innovations in policy, programs, practices, and technology in order to advance the functioning of government and nonprofit organizations in New York City and beyond. Prior to the Fund Lisette was the Director of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and a Full Clinical Professor at NYU Steinhardt. Lisette is also a Distinguished Clinical Instructor with NYU, overseeing doctoral students and supporting research initiatives.