Where Have All the Apprenticeships Gone?

I've been doing a lot of hiring in the last few years, although I didn't intend to do so. I'm not a recruiter, headhunter, or HR professional. I am a business leadership coach who deconstructed and recreated the system we use for hiring.

Along with becoming very critical of the “old” system that typically gets bad results, there has recently been an unintentional aha moment for me:


•       Suzanne can't find anyone to process mortgages.

•           Fred can't find a software architect.

•           Chuck can't get landscape architects.

•           Joe can't find sales reps.

•           Stan can't find an estimator.

There appears to be a skills gap and shortage of people to hire.  There appears to be a shortage of work ethic. There appears to be a generational issue.

But this couldn't be further from the truth. True, this is a generational issue, but not of the generally accepted variety.

The real problem: Apprenticeship has all but disappeared.

Employers expect that people arrive pre-packed and already loaded, like a human Zip drive (remember those?). And oddly enough, we are not.

Cait Murphy published a brilliant story in Inc. Magazine that underscores the issue. She says:

“It is not so much that the U.S. has a skills gap, but that there are specific issues in specific places: Wichita does not have enough mechanical drafters, Seattle enough computer systems designers, South Carolina enough nuclear engineers, or Brownsville, Texas, enough hydrocarbon mud loggers. And, of course, poor Gretchen Zierick has to hunt for the next generation of tool and die makers among the progeny of the soccer parents of Mount Kisco.”

Cait goes on to describe what a few forward-thinking companies have done, and what I think the people I know should do as well: start apprenticeship programs.

Even in professions that never had apprentices before, apprenticeship is a clear way to solve the perceived skills gap. That means that entrepreneurs must become training organizations in order to stay alive.

My aha moment: If you want great people to work for you, find the great ones, and teach them what you want them to know.

However, let's not confuse Internship with Apprenticeship. According to Dictionary.com:

An internship is a method of on-the-job training for white collar and professional careers.Internships for professional careers are similar in some ways to appreticeship for trade and vocational jobs, but the lack of standardization and oversight leaves the term open to broad interpretation.Interns may be college or university students, high school students, or post-graduate adults. These positions may be paid or unpaid and are usually temporary.

Apprenticeship is a system of  training a new generation of practitioners of a structured competency in a basic set of skills. Apprentices are set a strict training program so they can gain a set of skills to prepare themselves for their desired trade or a profession in which they wish to pursue a career. Most of their training is done while working for an employer who helps the apprentices learn their trade or profession, in exchange for their continued labor for an agreed period after they have achieved measurable competencies. For more advanced apprenticeships, theoretical education was also involved, with jobs and farming over a period of 4-6 years.

In apprenticeship lies an opportunity to solve 3 critical problems:

The need for a skilled employee pipeline.

If you take the time to build a core competency and mastery program based on key fundamentals, metrics and lots of TLC over a 12-24 month timeline with the promise of employment, you will get EXACTLY the skills you need as you need them and you will slow your turnover problems. You don't have to worry about what someone else may have taught employees (or not). You get exactly what you need.

The fact that people want to work where there is a great vision and trusted core values.

Here is where the TLC really pays off. When you let your employees and apprentices know what you stand for and why you do what you do, you grab not just their minds and hands but their hearts. Just for the record, answer the “why?” for your employees and all generations will pay you back with devotion. Anyone who tells you that young people don't have a work ethic hasn't seen what happens when you stand in your values. It is nothing short of magic. Give a hoot, get a tribe.

Solutions for other businesses who struggle with the same issue.

It isn't just you. If you are struggling with finding skilled labor in your community, then someone else is too. Rather than see this as hardship (I know you are busy...) see it as opportunity. You may be able to create a new revenue stream by training and placing. You may be able to go into the education market and charge for your training. You can be very creative. Think of the possibilities.

Young people apply for jobs, knowing they don't have skills but craving the opportunity to learn. Older workers are no different. Many people have been hurt and made redundant. They too want to learn. Employers need to stop thinking that schools, parents, and the economy are responsible for this shortfall. Employers used to provide on-the-job training and mastery programs. That is exactly what they now need to do again.

Apprenticeships will solve our perceived skills gap while helping each of us create a legacy. Out of pain comes opportunity.

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