Global connections: An international model for apprentice support services

Many believe that apprenticeships can be a solution to our nation’s workforce and education challenges — from eliminating the student debt crisis and increasing student completion rates, to closing the skills gap and resolving racial and economic disparities.

Accordingly, the federal government has made expanding American apprenticeships a priority and sought the advice and collaboration of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in the development and implementation of key initiatives, including AACC’s participation on the President’s Taskforce on the Expansion of Apprenticeships. AACC also recently signed a collaborative agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor, which included a $20 million partnership to create 16,000 new apprenticeships over three years.

As government and community college leaders look abroad at promising apprenticeship models, new international research indicates that an important element in the development of any successful apprenticeship program is to ensure that students have access to specialized apprenticeship support services.

In Australia, Holmesglen Institute recently won a gold Award of Excellence during the World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics (WFCP) World Congress for its promising and replicable model of student support services for apprenticeship programs.

Addressing completion, suicides

Holmesglen developed its model of apprentice support services after researching and gathering data on the experiences of its own apprentices. For several years, apprenticeship completion rates at Holmesglen and across the state of Victoria, Australia, had been plummeting. In addition, there was an alarming rise in apprentice suicides.

Although traditional student support services were widely offered on the Holmesglen campus, researchers discovered that many apprentices did not use them. Their excuses for ultimately dropping out — such as “not liking the work” or “not getting along with co-workers or employers” — masked more serious issues. Namely, Holmesglen researchers found that many of its apprentices were experiencing social, emotional and financial problems — including housing and food insecurity, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental and/or physical abuse. For many, an apprenticeship was a last-ditch effort to obtain a better life.

As a result of that research (which is still ongoing), Holmesglen in 2016 established the Apprentice Support Center and intentionally located it within its apprenticeship delivery areas to make it more visible and easily accessible to apprentices. It staffed the Center with apprenticeship support officers (ASOs) — tradespeople trained to provide holistic support services tailored to meet the unique needs of apprentices.

Holmesglen researchers found that apprentices could more easily bond with and approach tradespeople for help, rather than traditional college counselors and advisors. Likewise, they found that tradespeople could more easily initiate and maintain a rapport with and gain the trust and confidence of apprentices.

Four focus areas

Holmesglen ASOs use evidence-based approaches to identify areas of emerging need and to actively engage with apprentices, parents, teachers and employers. The counseling model has four basic pillars:

  • Pastoral care, which includes general navigation of the educational/apprenticeship system, resolution of on-the-job conflicts, and referrals to campus or community services for drug and alcohol abuse, healthcare, housing and food insecurity.
  • Mentoring, focused on career and personal counseling.
  • Financial support, regarding resolution of student financial aid matters, confronting employers for overdue payments, and/or help to create budgets or financial plans.
  • Academic and pathway support, which can involve referrals for tutoring or other specialized services as needed.

Through its Apprentice Support Center, Holmesglen substantially increased its apprentice and pre-apprentice retention and completion rates — nearly doubling the apprenticeship completion rate in 2017 to 90 percent, from prior yearly averages of about 52 percent. Retention rates also increased to 97 percent.

About the Author

Wayne Wheeler
is director of international programs and services at the American Association of Community Colleges.