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The Ultimate Guide to Apprenticeship Programs

Written by Meghana Machiraju on January 20, 2022
14 min read

In November 2021, a record 4.5 million Americans left their jobs voluntarily. 

It comes as no surprise that worker shortage and holding onto quality, skilled workers are the biggest challenges faced by every employer today. What can you do as an employer to overcome these challenges? Find new ways to break down barriers to employment, address the skills gap, and make it easier for people to get hired. 

How? By leveraging the time-tested approach to training and developing skilled workers: an apprenticeship! That’s why we wrote this guide - to help you get started on your apprenticeship program journey or to make your existing apprenticeship program even more successful than it already is. 

What is an apprenticeship?

In this post, we’ll provide an all-encompassing rundown of apprenticeship programs, including topics such as:

1. What is an apprenticeship program?

2. Types of apprenticeship programs

3. Apprenticeship program benefits 

4. Apprenticeship program statistics

5. How to start an apprenticeship program

6. Apprenticeship program examples

7. Learnings from experienced apprenticeship program managers

What is an apprenticeship program?

An apprenticeship program is a talent development initiative that any company can choose to establish to widen their talent pipeline or to fill any talent gaps in the organization. For apprentices, such a program serves as an alternate on-ramp into a role that normally requires a specific degree or professional experience. Apprenticeship programs provide motivated, high-potential individuals with the required training, professional skills development and experiential learning to bridge the gap. 

Apprenticeship programs remunerate the program participants for the duration of the program, and also provide apprentices with the opportunity to convert to full-time employment at the end of the program, if there is a good fit. 

Apprenticeship programs can vary in length depending on the needs of the business and the requirements of the roles. For example, if the transit company Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is looking to fill the role of a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Technician, TTC might follow a longer apprentice training program as the role involves learning complex electronic work.

On the other hand, if TTC is looking for an Accountant which is a less complex or more transactional role, then TTC can choose to run a shorter apprenticeship program, have limited formal learning and allow for a quicker ramp to proficiency.

Types of apprenticeship programs: 

A registered apprenticeship program (RAP) is a proven apprenticeship model and is validated by the Department of Labor (DOL) or a State Apprenticeship Agency recognized by the DOL. Industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAP) are validated by a DOL recognized Standards Recognition Entity but are a more customizable model of apprenticeship.

The DOL has put together a comparison chart of the two types of programs based on five components: pay, on-the-job learning, classroom learning, mentorship & supervision, and credentials. Take a look at some of the key differences between the two and decide what makes sense for your organization: 

Comparison between RAP and IRAP

Quick note: Some organizations develop their own custom apprenticeship programs that don't necessarily fall under RAP or IRAP. 

Apprenticeship program benefits: 

Apprenticeship programs have been proven time and again to be beneficial to businesses. That’s one of the reasons the United States has invested billions of dollars into creating 1,000,000 apprenticeship opportunities. It’s time to start considering how starting an apprenticeship program can positively impact your business:

  1. Financially beneficial to businesses

While investing in potential workers with little to no experience may not seem financially viable, in 2020 it was reported that for registered apprenticeship programs the average return on investment was $1.48 for every $1 spent on apprentices.

This is due to many factors, but most notable that apprenticeships have a direct link to higher retention rates and reduced turnover. Many registered apprentices who complete their programs stick with their companies for at least 3 years on average. This means that businesses save money on recruiting and hiring processes.

The US government also has numerous grants for apprenticeship programs. Once registered with the US Department of Labor, companies can request funding assistance in starting their programs.

  1. Creates a more skilled and efficient workforce

The entire point of an apprenticeship program is to teach apprentices the skills needed to further their careers in a specific field. When you have control over that curriculum, it allows you to fill certain skill gaps you may have in your current workforce. In many cases, apprentices also bring new and fresh ideas that more experienced workers may overlook. 

But the most beneficial part of an apprenticeship program is that it teaches your workers to learn and develop themselves even after they have finished their apprenticeships. This means that your workforce is less likely to become outdated and more likely to stay up-to-date on current trends and practices.

Starting an apprenticeship program can also be beneficial to your current workforce, many menial tasks that may take the time of your more experienced workers are great experiences for apprentices. This allows for senior workers to focus on more skill intensive projects. It also gives many current workers valuable leadership and mentorship opportunities when helping apprentices.

  1. Improves company culture

Starting an apprenticeship program demonstrates to employees that not only are businesses willing to invest in new opportunities, but they are willing to invest in developing employees into the best version of themselves. Former apprentices tend to show a higher level of job satisfaction which has led to increased retention rates. 

Apprenticeship programs also offer non-traditional pathways to coveted jobs, meaning many people from non-traditional backgrounds have the opportunity to break into long standing industries. This naturally increases the diversity and inclusivity of many industries that may have had a stagnant labor market.

Apprenticeship program statistics: 

  • In 2021, there were roughly 1000 careers that were apprenticeable as recognized by the US Department of Labor and are included in the Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP). 
  • As found by the US Department of Labor, there was a 70% growth in apprentices from 2011 to 2019 alone, but due to COVID-19, those numbers decreased by 13% in 2020. 
  • Introduction of the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021: This act will help accelerate USA’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and create an additional 1 million Registered Apprenticeship opportunities for workers across the country, across industries. 
  • While investing in potential workers with little to no experience may not seem financially viable, in 2020 it was reported that for registered apprenticeship programs the average return on investment was $1.48 for every $1 spent on apprentices.
  • In 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor granted $80.6 million to 42 states and territories that applied for funding in order to support their apprenticeship implementation plans.
  • States are also putting initiatives forward to encourage the creation of apprenticeships and employment of apprentices. 

Given these positive statistics and increasing support from the government towards apprenticeships, now is the best time to consider how you’re going to start an apprenticeship program at your company!

How to start an apprenticeship program:

Building an apprenticeship program from the ground up is no easy feat but apprenticeships can be extremely beneficial to your organization. Here are the key steps to building a successful apprenticeship program: 

Step 1: Define program vision and priorities

The first step to creating a successful apprenticeship program is to understand what your vision is for the program. Are you using apprenticeships to:

  • Expand talent sources 
  • Build a qualified talent pipeline for your organization
  • Provide industry training to emerging talent
  • Improve DEI in your company/industry?

Once you know what the vision for your program is, confirm this with leadership and other key stakeholders in your organization. 

Step 2: Identify target roles to fill through this apprenticeship program

Sample criteria to keep in mind while identifying roles to fill through your apprenticeship program: 

Taking the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) as an example: 

  • Niche roles: When a role requires niche skills, it becomes difficult to fill them up. For example: If TTC is looking to fill a very niche role like that of a Light Rail Technician whose role involves learning complex properties of materials, brake systems, electrical systems, and so on, such roles are a good fit for the apprenticeship program. 
  • Scale: If TTC needs to hire 30 Accountants, it makes sense to hire through an apprenticeship program, allowing the training investment and program management to be scaled to maximum efficiency.

Step 3: Identify your program status 

There are two types of apprenticeship programs you could choose from: 

RAPs enable and energize more employers to participate and provide them access to larger talent pools that have been trained for entry-level to management positions, thereby meeting industry demands and reducing unemployment rates across the country. 

  • Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs: are high-quality apprenticeship programs recognized as such by a Standards Recognition Entity (SRE) pursuant to the DOL’s standards. These programs provide individuals with opportunities to obtain workplace-relevant knowledge and progressively advancing skills. IRAPs include a paid-work component and an educational component and result in an industry-recognized credential. An IRAP is developed or delivered by entities such as trade and industry groups, corporations, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, unions, and joint labor-management organizations.

For more information about these programs and differences between the two, go back to the ‘Types of Apprenticeships’ section of the blog post. 

Step 4: Identify program details 

  • Budget: Apprenticeship programs can be expensive, especially at first when you’re learning the ins and outs of running one. Make sure you have a budget in place before you launch your program, and keep in mind that programs typically run for at least one year, if not longer.

You’ll need to factor in: wages (apprentices must be paid), training, supervision costs, administrative costs, benefits, materials, etc. Your budget for an apprenticeship program will help you decide if you’ll build a program from scratch or partner with an intermediary, how many apprentices you’re going to hire, and what their pay will be (at least industry standard). 

  • Compensation and benefits: The compensation paid to an apprentice is typically lower than that paid to a full-time employee who is doing the same role as the apprentice. Ensure that the compensation paid to the apprentice is sufficient enough to cover their living expenses and any other expenses they may incur through the apprenticeship.

Leverage U.S. Department of Labor standards as applicable or necessary. It is recommended to offer apprentices the same benefits you would otherwise offer to a full-time employee in that role, to give apprentices a sense of belonging. 

  • Duration of program: The recommended U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship duration minimum is one year. Depending on the complexity of the apprenticeship role, the duration could vary. If the role requires a long training period for the apprentice to confidently perform all the tasks associated with the apprenticeship, then the apprenticeship duration could be longer. 
  • Format: Building your apprenticeship program from scratch allows you to have the flexibility and customization to shape your program the way you want to. There are successful frameworks and existing programs you can model yours off of; however, there is still a lot of legwork that goes into it. You could also choose to partner with an existing program. There are intermediaries with established apprenticeship programs that work with employers and partner organizations. In this case, the program operations will be managed by the intermediary, but the apprentices will work for you. You’ll be able to launch your program quicker but you’ll have less control over it.
  • Who will manage the program: Some organizations hire specifically for an apprenticeship program manager; this is especially true if the program is large and robust. Other times, if an apprenticeship program is specific to one department (e.g. a software engineering apprenticeship), the program manager might just be an employee in that department, likely manager+ level title.

Whoever will be managing the program needs to be equipped with the proper resources and assemble other colleagues that will help them execute the apprenticeship program. Make sure this person understands how to build a team and is an organized project manager. They should be excited about this program and aligned with the goals.

  • Sourcing strategy: What type of apprentices you need will determine where to recruit them from. Programs can cater to a wide range of people: high schoolers, college students, postgraduate students, working professionals, and more. If you work with an intermediary, they will likely help source apprentice candidates for you. If you’re running your own program, you’ll need to post your own jobs and recruit. If you’re working with high school apprentices, you can partner with local high schools; there are even high schools with trade programs.

To recruit college and postgraduate students, you can host in-person and virtual university recruiting events and create formal partnerships with universities. For working professionals, you can approach professional and industry organizations and host networking events. Whatever level of professional you’re looking for, you should make sure you’re recruiting from diverse sources. Including community colleges and nonprofit workforce development organizations as sourcing partners is a great way to increase diversity as they typically focus on underrepresented populations. 

Here are some criteria to consider when choosing sourcing partners

  • Candidate selection process: Before you start taking applications for the program, one thing to keep in mind is that many candidates might not have typical work or education experiences. In this case, it is important to focus on other means of assessing the individual’s skills and abilities. Consider conducting skills-based interviews, timed case studies over Zoom to assess their knowledge and skills in real-time, and behavioral interviews to assess their behavioral traits and strengths. During these interviews or assessments, you should not try to look for typical experience or educational qualifications. Instead, assess candidates based on criteria such as curiosity, passion to learn, self-starter, logical thinking, problem solving, interpersonal skills, etc. 
  • Establish how to incorporate classroom learning into your apprenticeship program: Classroom learning is required for a RAP and may or may not be required for an IRAP depending on your industry. Either way, best practice is to build it into your program. Classroom learning can be either external (high school, community college, e-learning provider, trade school, etc) or internal, but it needs to be related to the focus of the apprenticeship. You’ll want to make sure the classroom learning component teaches them theory applicable to their roles, fills in knowledge gaps, and complements the on-the-job training.
  • Design of on-the-job training: On-the-job training takes theory and provides real-world experience so your apprentices can learn by doing. Under close supervision, apprentices will acquire the practical skills they need to launch their careers and work independently. 

You will need to come up with a written training plan, also known as a work process schedule (WPS), that you provide to the apprentice prior to them starting. The training plan should outline the competencies they will gain over the course of the program and the types of work that map to the competencies as well as how many hours of training and education go into each.

The Department of Labor has sample WPS documents that you can use as a framework for your apprenticeship program. Make sure you also include training that is forward-thinking to prepare them for continued success in their career.

Step 5: Execute the program

As your program starts, ongoing program management is essential to keep the program on track. We recommend creating a gantt chart for managing the program end-to-end. Start by plotting all tasks ranging from onboarding to on-the-job training delivery to tracking apprentices’ performance. Keep in mind that there might be some ‘break-ins’ such as if the apprenticeship program manager falls sick and is unable to conduct a week’s worth of training, any apprentice scheduling issues, etc. Continually measure and monitor the progress of the program. Collect feedback from apprentices, mentors, program managers, and other leadership involved in the program.

Step 6: Measure success 

The final step in developing an apprenticeship program is to measure success and examine what makes a successful apprenticeship program. The metrics you track to understand your program success should align with your overall goals.

If your goal is to build a qualified talent pipeline into your organization, metrics like program completion rate, apprentice to full-time conversion rate, and apprentice to full-time retention rate compared to average employee retention rate are important to assess. If DEI is a main priority, you should be looking at demographics of apprentices, inclusion survey data, and demographics of apprentices hired full-time. Determine what metrics you want to track, study any existing benchmarks, set goals, and measure often. 

Don’t miss out on these tips to keep in mind while planning your apprenticeship program 

Apprenticeship program examples: 

  1. Accenture’s apprenticeship program is a learn-and-earn model—typically 12 months long—that provides apprentices with market-based wages and comprehensive benefits while building cutting-edge skills needed for a successful career. An overwhelming majority of apprentices who complete the program stay on with Accenture after graduating from it, with continuing opportunities for long-term career growth.  

Accenture launched its apprenticeship program in Chicago in 2016 in collaboration with City Colleges of Chicago and has since expanded it to more than 35 cities in the US. Skilling partners that recruit apprentices include community colleges, tech academies and nonprofits, such as NPower and Year Up. Since establishing the apprenticeship program in 2016, Accenture has hired more than 1,200 apprentices. The vast majority — 960 people, or 80% — joined the company without a four-year college degree.

  1. Maine apprenticeship program: The Maine Department of Labor runs a formal, industry-led, nationally recognized Maine Apprenticeship Program that provides in-house skill development through on-the-job learning supplemented with technical and theoretical coursework. The Maine Apprenticeship Program through the Maine DOL has been happening since 1941 and now serves 1,150 apprentices through 317 participating businesses. The top industries taking part are construction, manufacturing, and health care. 94% of apprentices stay with their employer after their program is over and they're fully trained. 
  1. Tennessee’s pioneering teacher apprenticeship program: The Tennessee Department of Education announced in January 2022 its apprenticeship program for teaching. Tennessee is the first state in the country to be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a permanent Grow Your Own model, with Clarksville-Montgomery County School System and Austin Peay State University's Teacher Residency program. This makes it the first registered apprenticeship program for teaching in the country. The goal is to extend the teacher pipeline and address teacher shortages. 
  1. Microsoft’s Leap apprenticeship program: Microsoft launched a 16-week apprenticeship program called Leap in 2015, to induct more people into the tech industry. This apprenticeship program combines in-classroom learning with hands-on engineering projects, working on real teams and real Microsoft such as Azure, Xbox, Bing, and Office365.

Learnings from experienced apprenticeship program managers: 

  1. “Apprenticeships are a critical emerging talent pathway that create a new entry point for top talent in tech. Hiring apprentices has helped our teams to expand hiring funnels, reinforced the value of a skills-based hiring approach, and created new pathways for talent to highly skilled jobs. Our Apprenticeship Programs have created onramps which have resulted in successful career transformations for non-traditional talent, career pivoters, and talent re-entering the workforce.

Employer hiring and talent development strategies must evolve for companies to address challenges, including the Great Reshuffle, talent migration, and the demands of the future workforce. With aspiring workers demanding new pathways to economic opportunity, apprenticeships will continue to gain more momentum as an earn-and-learn model that creates a win-win for career seekers and companies.”

-Laura Ahern, Senior Program Manager,  Apprenticeship Center of Excellence at LinkedIn

  1. “Asurion created our in-house Software Engineer and Design Apprenticeship Programs with the goals of:
  • Upskilling our frontline employees and providing them with additional career pathing opportunities to grow their careers with Asurion
  • Helping to foster diversity in tech from within our own organization
  • Helping build Nashville’s tech talent pipeline with an eye toward long-term growth

When we considered our options of how to best accomplish these goals, we found in-house apprenticeships made the most sense. 

Our inaugural Software Engineer Apprenticeship was the first of its kind in Tennessee and was awarded Nashville Technology Council’s Diversity & Inclusion Initiative of the Year in 2021. Members of that apprenticeship cohort successfully completed the program and are now full stack engineers. 

We are currently midway through our second Software Engineer Apprenticeship and will launch our first Design Apprenticeship this month. 

Throughout the course of building and executing these apprenticeship programs, we have learned that customization is key. By developing our own curriculum and upskilling our own employees, we’re able to secure passionate talent with the skill sets needed to be successful in these roles. 

Asurion will continue investing in these apprenticeship programs to continue fostering diversity in tech and building the region’s tech talent pipeline.”

-Melinda Noblitt, Sr. Manager, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) at Asurion

  1. “We’ve run a three-month apprenticeship for designers and developers since 2011. Here are some of our key learnings from the past 10+ years:
  • Before assigning mentors to apprentices, make sure to put them through basic training. Build a mentor handbook and share with potential mentors. They should demonstrate not only the hard skills required to be successful in their fields but also empathy and the ability to create a cycle of open, honest feedback.
  • Consider rotating mentors and project teams throughout the apprenticeship. We’ve found that this helps accelerate our apprentices’ growth.
  • If you intend to hire your apprentices full-time after the program, tailor your hiring and interview process so that you can assess whether potential apprentices could be a great full-time hire. 
  • Make sure to understand what your apprentices’ goals are. It helps in matching them with the right mentors, and also so that their mentors can help keep them on track to meet their goals.
  • Make sure to understand what your apprentices’ goals are. It helps in matching them with the right mentors, and also so that their mentors can help keep them on track to meet their goals. We start each apprenticeship with a meeting to go over this and refine goals and a learning plan with the apprentice and mentor.

We have now transitioned to a fully-remote team and are conducting successful apprenticeships remotely across all of the Americas, Europe, Middle East, and Africa. This opens up access to an amazing talent pool, creates a supportive environment to train the next generation of leaders in our company that we're super excited about.

If you’re thinking about setting up an apprenticeship program, don’t hesitate. Start today. Your company will be more dynamic and interesting as a result.”

-Chad Pytel, Founder & COO, Thoughtbot - originally pulled from this article

Get started today on your apprenticeship program journey!

Symba is an all-in-one digital platform that helps organizations streamline the management of their talent development programs, including internships, apprenticeships, mentorships, fellowships, and more. Do you have 15+ apprentices? Are you looking to optimize and scale your program? We would love to help make your apprenticeship program a success, feel free to request a demo and get in touch!

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Meghana Machiraju

Meghana Machiraju is a B2B content marketing professional at Symba. Previously, Meghana worked as a Content Marketing Lead for a SaaS healthcare startup. She holds a Masters in Marketing from Schulich School of Business, Canada, and an MBA in Advertising from Symbiosis International University, India. Outside of work, you will find her traveling or looking for the next vegetarian restaurant to go to!

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