Apprenticeship: The Other Four-Year Degree

An apprenticeship may not be as popular a talent development model as traditional or even virtual learning, but it does have merit. Apprenticeships target the training and skill building employers need for specific roles, and provide employees with a salary while they learn. They are also adaptable and applicable to almost any industry or job role that requires training.

California and 26 other states have established formal divisions to foster, develop and promote apprenticeship programs and protect apprentices’ interests. Glen Forman, deputy chief of the division of apprenticeship standards, and Diane Ravnik, chief of division of apprenticeship standards for the state of California, explain how it works.

You hear more about apprenticeships in Europe, but how popular are they in the United States?

Forman (pictured below): I can speak for California. The apprenticeship model, for those who know about it, [they] think it’s the greatest thing in the world. Those that don’t know about it are sometimes apprehensive because they don’t understand it. The biggest problem that your constituents have in this magazine is the retiring workforce. All these baby boomers are about ready to retire, and we need to transfer their knowledge. The other thing is you’ve got a lot of military that are about ready to come back. Most have families. They can’t take time off to go to school. Apprenticeship is a learn and earn model. They’re actually employed, and they’re getting trained.

Apprenticeship provides mentors on the workforce, related instruction at a school or a community college to train this person on how exactly to do the job they’re getting hired to do.

Ravnik: There are great benefits to employers. What we see in California, and reflected around the country, is that the economy is beginning to pick up. We have some major industries here, as do others, and as Glen mentioned, you have the baby boomers retiring and a developing need for a skilled workforce to replace them. Employers are able to train employees on their own job sites to their own specifications rather than just pick someone from a community college or other training program. They have a role in the nature and quality of that training as they go along. Another component of apprenticeship that’s attractive to employers is while employees are paid, employers are able to pay them commensurate with their skill level. Programs are four and five years long. They can start a beginning apprentice at a relatively low wage and have a graduated wage scale as their skills and knowledge increase. So it’s a win-win on both sides of the equation.

Is apprenticeship more suitable for specific industries or specific types of roles?

Forman: It’s applicable to any industry and occupation that would take more than just a simple explanation on how to do something, something it would take somebody some schooling to learn.

Ravnik (pictured to the right): There are currently some 800 named apprenticeable occupations. We don’t train in all of those, but as Glen points out, really almost anything could be an apprenticeable occupation. In California we have a requirement that registered apprenticeship programs of an occupation require at least 144 hours of classroom instruction per year.

How can an organization determine whether apprenticeships would be useful?

Ravnik: I would suggest contacting the local apprenticeship agency and describing what their needs are. Are they losing a workforce? Do they need skilled personnel? In California — and we are the largest apprenticeship program in the country — we have local apprenticeship consultants, and they consult with employers to help them design apprenticeships standards. Those standards are essentially a description and hourly allocation of what the employer would like to have learned on the job, particular skill sets and also what kind of curriculum they would like the worker to have a command of.

Forman: If they have training needs, they have a need for apprenticeship. If they can’t hire the people they need, they should be training the people they need and using apprenticeship to do it.

Ravnik: Even in our existing programs skill sets change. For instance, there’s a lot of attention to green jobs and energy efficiency, and recently our California apprenticeship council asked our building trades programs to incorporate green components into their existing training.

Forman: For example, it used to be a janitor would not be considered an apprenticeable craft. Now you have a janitor in a high-tech industry dealing with computers, safety data sheets, the materials they’re working with, and the security stuff they have to deal with; it requires training.

Ravnik: More likely are those types of occupations on the high-skill level. For instance, in California biomedical technology is a growing occupation. Nationally advanced manufacturing, again because of these aging baby boomers, health care and the new national health care initiatives, these are all growing fields. One of our newer programs in California that is exemplary of those trends is a firm in southern California, Alphatec Spine.

Forman: It’s a company that manufacturers replacement parts for human spines.

Ravnik: It combines two industry priorities, advanced manufacturing and health care.

What about leadership-type roles? Is the apprenticeship model useful in training executives?

Forman: We could set that up. I think it would be a very good idea. The problem is you have to make sure you have a mentor that can teach that goal. A lot of our apprenticeship programs have leadership components that are taught, and they have the basic skill sets, but there’s no reason they can’t be an apprenticeable craft.

Is vocational training another way to refer to apprenticeships?

Ravnik: Vocational training is an old-style expression. We’re trying to really educate and encourage the use of apprenticeship, so we’re trying to update. These days there is a discussion more around career pathways, and we do consider apprenticeship a career. It’s not just a part-time job. Somebody goes through training for anywhere from two to five or more years; there should be pathways.

Here in California we have a number of career academies in high schools that are grouped around different occupational areas — the arts, health care or engineering and construction. It is vocationally directed clearly, and we would like to see our community colleges here trying to establish greater connections with the employer community. Apprenticeship adds that direct linkage with employers to ensure the vocational training at the community college is geared toward the specific needs the employer has, and training does actually result in a job.

Forman: Vocational training is basically sitting in a class trying to learn a job, whereas apprenticeships you’re on the job trying to learn how to do the job, and you’re getting the training that you did.

Ravnik: People often describe the apprenticeship model as earn while you learn because you’re actually doing the work you’re learning about.

Does the apprenticeship model have less perceived value than an academic degree? If so, how do you get around that?

Forman: That’s the million-dollar question. A lot of times people have a negative connotation on the word apprenticeship. We’re trying to change that. One of our slogans is, apprenticeship is one of the best talent development models out there.

Ravnik: Sometimes we call it “the other four-year degree.” In the past we have described it as the best-kept secret. The more people know about apprenticeship, the better they like it. One of the common misconceptions I always like to stress is that there is an academic classroom component to every single apprenticeship program, it is post-secondary education, and we are a degree-comparable program to reach the same goals as the college-educated students do. Glen is always quick to point out to our graduating classes [that] our apprentices graduate their programs without huge, looming student debt.

Forman: And they have a job.