Tapping apprenticeships to address the skills gap

Capital Community College President Wilfredo Nieves (far left) joins a panel convened by House members to discuss promising apprenticeship models. (Photo: Tabitha Whissemore)

In June 2017, Connecticut’s Capital Community College (CCC) launched a new apprenticeship program — one focused on insurance.

CCC partnered with insurance corporation The Hartford on the Insurance Claims Operations Registered Apprenticeship, a one-year program that allows apprentices to earn $15 an hour while gaining on-the-job training. They also participate in insurance-related instruction, mentoring and academic coaching.

Students who successfully complete the program will transition into a full-time job. In addition, they earn an associate degree, a non-credit certificate in insurance claims operations, 12 college credits, a state adjuster’s license and the Connecticut Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship certificate.

It’s not your typical program when it comes to apprenticeship, but it’s exactly the kind that congressional leaders want to learn about. And their interest was piqued when CCC President Wilfredo Nieves outlined the program during a panel discussion January 18 on best practices in apprenticeships that was organized by organized by House Democrats.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), who convened the event, touted apprenticeships for their ability to tackle one of the most critical issues today: bridging the skills gap. She said it’s time to “shift our thinking,” to not only focus on degrees, but on in-demand skills. Not having a degree shouldn’t disqualify someone from having economic security, DeLauro said.

Nieves’ testimony echoed DeLauro’s sentiments.

“The apprenticeship model changes students’ lives by giving them opportunities to enter good jobs and receive academic, mentoring and financial support to complete their college degrees,” Nieves said.

Nieves, the only community college representative on the panel, was joined by The Hartford’s Jodi Greenspan. The apprenticeship program came about in part because The Hartford was seeking new “diverse, talented employees,” and “we had untapped potential student workers at community colleges near our office locations,” Greenspan said.

The Hartford is the first U.S. insurance company to have a Registered Apprenticeship with the federal government, according to Greenspan. The program has expanded to Arizona, and may continue in Florida. And success has spurred CCC to launch two new apprenticeship programs in 2018: food service and hospitality management and financial services cyber security.

A missed opportunity

At Aon, a provider of risk-management services, hiring requirements had disqualified students from City Colleges of Chicago, and that was “a missed opportunity for us,” said Bridget Gainer, vice president of global public affairs.

“We were ignoring an entire talent pipeline that was literally staring us in the face,” Gainer said.

Aon looked at its entry-level positions and evaluated which ones truly required a four-year college degree and which required it “because that was what we’d always done,” Gainer said. Many of those positions had high attrition because “people didn’t need the degree, so they were not staying in a job that didn’t really demand it,” she said.

The company partnered with Harold Washington College to create an apprenticeship program that would reduce turnover, increase job satisfaction and help the community. Aon has two-year tracks in information technology, human resources and its core insurance business.

Other companies, such as Accenture and Walgreens, have joined with Aon to scale up the program. The goal is to have as many as 500 or 1,000 apprentices in 2019.

Raising the profile

Microsoft is making use of apprentices to ensure people have the right skills for evolving technology jobs. The company has a registered apprenticeship partnership program with Apprenti, part of the Washington Technology Industry Association. The Apprenti program “is a pipeline for under-represented groups to gain training, certification and placement within the tech industry,” explained Portia Wu, Microsoft’s director of workforce policy.

Microsoft has made more use of apprenticeships in Europe, and Wu pointed to the UK model as an interesting example of public-private partnership. Private companies play a part in developing government-recognized standards. The government provides funding to support apprenticeships.

“Standardization, consistent public support, and a broad business understanding of apprenticeship’s return on investment are critical components of that success,” Wu said.

But while apprenticeship programs are standard in Europe, they’re harder to find in the United States. Increasing access to programs is a “key challenge,” Wu noted.

She joked that she can easily find five tacquerias close to her with an internet search, but can’t find apprenticeships that way. That’s a big negative in an age where people are used to getting immediate information.

“Particularly outside the union context, there is no clear, transparent marketplace or centralized hub where individuals can find, learn about and even rate registered apprenticeships,” she said.

She suggested that listing available apprenticeships in one location and making it easier to apply would help “expand the breadth” of jobseekers looking to learn about apprenticeship opportunities, as well as help employers by expanding the pool of candidates.

Banding together

Machine Specialties, Inc. (MSI) is a small manufacturing company in North Carolina. Most of the 150 employees are highly trained – but they’re aging.

“This new idea of paying for education and training youth seemed like a good avenue to try and looking into the future could be a way to achieve that pipeline of a skilled workforce that every employer needs,” said Tammy Simmons, vice president of human resources and marketing at MSI.

Rather than going it alone, Simmons worked with other local companies to register and implement youth apprenticeships. They formed the Guilford Apprenticeship Partners (GAP). North Carolina has its own apprenticeship department that assists employers with registering with the U.S. Department of Labor and helps connect them with other companies that are doing similar programs, so the consortium of companies was able to quickly implement the apprenticeship program.

GAP began with six companies, and has grown to include 26 companies offering youth apprenticeships. Tracks now include training for field technicians, HVAC and electricians.

The successful model has been shared with other counties, resulting in two other youth programs from other communities have been launched with success.

Still going strong

While apprenticeships in the technology and insurance industries are fairly new in the U.S., the United Association, a union that represents plumbers, pipefitters, sprinkler fitters, welders, and heating and cooling technicians, has used apprentices since 1889. UA currently has nearly 45,000 apprentices in local programs. Part of the success is due to industry partners.

“Our apprenticeship program works because together we have a joint vested interest in seeing our apprentices receive the education that they need to learn a skill that will enable them to earn a living,” said Chris Haslinger, UA’s director of education and training.

Though the industry has changed, “our apprenticeship model allows us to adapt to what is needed in the industry,” Haslinger said.

State-of-the-art training centers and use of the latest technology, such as virtual and augmented reality, have been incorporated into classes without government funding or at a cost to those attending.

Myth-busting

Despite all the success stories around apprenticeship programs, though, there are still challenges.

Many employers, as Gainer pointed out, still look to the four-year degree as a qualification for employment. But a degree doesn’t necessarily lead to success.

“Grit is an important factor,” The Hartford’s Greenspan said. “If they have that, they don’t need the college degree.”

Participants in The Hartford’s apprenticeship program receive mentoring and training in corporate culture. They’re evaluated with the same metrics as traditional hires.

“At the end of the day, we are not a charity; we’re a business,” Greenspan said.

And an apprenticeship doesn’t necessarily preclude someone from getting a four-year degree, according to Haslinger.

“It’s not an either/or,” he said.

Priorities going forward

Legislators in attendance asked panelists what the federal government could do to help boost apprenticeships. One answer: funding.

Incentivizing apprenticeship programs by offering temporary financial assistance makes it less risky for both the business and the apprentice, Gainer said.

The American Apprenticeship Grant Initiative helped CCC and The Hartford provide tuition assistance for participating students. Tuition can be a barrier to entry for many students.

DeLauro pointed out that the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program allowed efforts to help people get on the path to economic security to “gain momentum.”

“TAACCCT grants helped us change our direction and our ability,” Nieves said.

That $2 billion program is winding down, though, and it’s unclear what type of funding apprenticeships will receive in the fiscal year 2018 budget.

Another way the government can help: “Enforcing good standards,” Gainer said. Becoming a registered apprenticeship with the federal government should be a sign that a program is high quality.

Helping to raise the profile of apprenticeships is important, too. Gainer suggested that legislators convene meetings with employers in their home districts to talk about implementing apprenticeship programs.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.