HR News February 2022 Featured Article: The Role Apprenticeships Can Play in Building the Workforce of Tomorrow

Recruitment and retention continue to be major challenges for employers. During what some are calling the Great Resignation and others have dubbed the Great Reshuffle, millions of Americans are quitting their jobs each month. As one result, many public sector agencies have made talent acquisition their number one priority.

In their efforts to find the right candidates, more human resources professionals are considering nontraditional methods for identifying and attracting talented workers. The U.S. Labor Department has supported such innovations and last year awarded more than $130 million in grants to registered apprenticeship programs. Those funds will lead more employers across the country to establish and expand apprenticeship opportunities in order to fill talent pools.

Apprenticeships Already Exist at Local, State and Federal Agencies

Apprenticeship programs, whether conducted in-house or administered by an independent firm under contract, have proven their worth as workforce development solutions. In particular, they help public sector agencies recruit and train workers for roles that demand high degrees of skill and knowledge.

Offering apprenticeships is an especially effective way to attract and expose young people to government careers in areas of fast-growing demand such as IT and cybersecurity. Such programs can also create talent pools and leadership pipelines that are more diverse than the ones produced by traditional recruiting methods. Training young people for public sector careers via apprenticeships can even improve the quality and quantity of public services.

For older workers, an agency can realize great value from viewing an apprenticeship as a retraining program. Many jobs that were lost during the pandemic are not returning. This has led a growing number of people to look for work in new fields. Making retraining a major component of an apprenticeship would do much for getting people back to work.

More than 150 apprenticeship programs currently operate across the U.S. federal government. Those programs collectively enroll nearly 1,500 apprentices in a broad array of disciplines, including technology, health care, financial services, transportation and skilled trades occupations such as carpenter, electrician and plumber. In addition, more than two dozen states have coordinated, centralized apprenticeship programs, as shown on the accompanying map. These numbers could very well increase following the award of federal grants during 2021.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration

Meeting Pressing Workforce Needs

As noted, apprenticeship programs can play a crucial role in building workforces in new and fast-growing professions where competition for talent is fierce. This is already happening in the area of cybersecurity. Federal agencies have been organizing bootcamps to identify talent and offering apprenticeships to fill their talent pipeline. In addition, more programs are being launched to train both younger and older workers to fill in-demand positions in areas such as child care, software development and manufacturing.

The bootcamps can be conducted online, in person or a mix of both. Important factors that go into making bootcamps successful are camaraderie between participants, effective communication from sponsors and mentors, and consistent support throughout.

Promoting Agility, Increasing Diversity and Facilitating Workforce Reentry

Organizations have learned to use bootcamps and apprenticeships to meet rapidly changing business and staffing needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, digital marketing bootcamps were launched once it became clear social media was critical for keeping employees and members of the public fully informed.

Low barriers to entry have also made apprenticeship programs good for attracting diverse groups of participants. Apprentices do not need the same educational backgrounds and years of experience as traditional job applicants, and many apprentice positions are part-time. This makes apprenticeships key tools for broadening and deepening talent pools, particularly for IT and computer jobs where apprentices without college degrees can learn on the job and get paid instead of borrowing to cover tuition.

One more benefit of offering apprenticeships is providing a path for women who put their careers on the back burner during the pandemic to reenter the workforce in new roles they enjoy more than their previous ones. Across the bootcamps and apprenticeship programs my organization is involved with, 35 percent of participants are women. Women account for half of the enrollments in some coding bootcamps, and the age range of participants has been remarkable. One participant was 67 years old during 2021, and the median age of all participants was around 35.

Recruiting for Attitude Rather Than Experience

Government agencies achieve the best results when they align their apprenticeship programs with their overall hiring needs. Doing this allows them to fast-track bootcamps and prioritize the recruitment and training of job candidates who are ambitious and hungry for new opportunities but not ideal fits on paper.

My organization, which administers apprenticeships for a number of private businesses and public sector agencies, has always found that hiring for a positive attitude, general aptitude and willingness to learn produces the best job candidates. Learning new skills can be challenging, so apprentices who are motivated and have a go-getter attitude have the best chance of becoming successful employees. We have also found that mentorship and support from fellow apprentices are important for helping program participants overcome challenges and stay the course.

Once candidates with the right attitude learn the right skills, they become attractive recruits for open positions. Several people who completed apprentices my organization administered received multiple job offers. When that happens, we provide ongoing support to help former apprentices navigate the hiring process.

While no one can be certain what new challenges public sector agencies will face in the future, everyone can be sure workforce needs will continue to evolve and organization will have to fill roles that do not currently exist. Due to their agile nature and ability to increase diversity and equity, apprenticeship programs will likely play a growing role in helping all employers meet their changing talent needs as they build the workforce of tomorrow.

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