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Pathways in the Field: Reflections on Apprenticeship Forward

Posted by Leah Moschella On May 23 2017

Imagine showing up for your first day of work confident that you could tackle any task given to you, already comfortable around your colleagues because you’ve worked with them for several months, and not distracted by the fear of college debt.  This utopia was Ed Richardson’s reality. Ed learned about financial apprenticeships in high school and became a financial apprentice with Aon Corporation when he graduated in order to learn on the job while pursuing his associate’s degree. Hundreds of people from across the country had an opportunity to learn about Ed’s successful finance and business apprenticeship at the Apprenticeship Forward conference, hosted by the National Skills Coalition and New America from May 4-5th in Washington D.C.

Apprenticeship Forward was the first convening of its kind with a goal of highlighting new apprenticeship models that can help increase diversity in high-wage careers and reframe the conversation about their role in the U.S. Participants represented employers, industry, colleges, high schools, unions, and advocacy groups, all eager to contribute, share, and strategize.  

While apprenticeships are still widely associated with the skilled trades, the model has recently grown in sectors such as STEM, finance, and business. Citing examples from Switzerland and Germany, practitioners and speakers lauded the value of on-the-job learning that is integrated into a career pathway with growth potential and a family-supporting salary. In a session focused on finance apprenticeships, Zurich Financial Services and Wells Fargo representatives described their commitment to developing new on-the-job training and formal apprenticeships in order to build a diverse staff, upskill incumbent workers, and improve retention rates.  Finance and business apprenticeship models connect employees to a career path within the company and identify opportunities to earn postsecondary credentials ranging from a certificate to an MBA.

In addition to celebrating successes, the conference highlighted existing challenges, particularly related to youth apprenticeship models. Apprenticeships at the secondary level expose students to industries through formal on-the-job learning that usually occurs at the culmination of a work-based learning continuum after youth have participated in a sequential set of career-focused experiences that may include guest speakers, site visits, job shadows, and internships.  While still enrolled in coursework––often dual credit, youth apprentices can apply their classroom learning to their work experience.  In one session, participants discussed the stigma many community members associate with apprenticeship models, and the need to promote apprenticeships as a viable and rewarding option for both students entering the workforce after high school and those pursuing postsecondary education. Youth apprenticeship advocates encouraged addressing this challenge through more training and support for guidance and transitions counselors.  Several participants also suggested engaging teachers and parents by hosting site tours, sharing wage and employment outcomes, and calculating college savings.

Throughout the conference, sessions featured group discussion about the importance of expanding diversity within apprenticeships––both in terms of the types of industries participating and the students themselves.  Employers, colleges, and policymakers all agreed on the economic return on investment and that diversity sparks innovation.

As the Pathways to Prosperity Network develops and implements high-quality work-based learning experiences, let’s explore how apprenticeships can play a more prominent role within a WBL continuum. Expanding apprenticeship opportunities closely aligns with the Pathways to Prosperity framework: High school students can gain an early advantage in their careers, college students can obtain industry-recognized credentials, and business and industry leaders can attract diverse talent.