Barely a day goes by without another article on the “skills gap.” As the United States emerges from the economic doldrums created by COVID-19 lockdowns, the single biggest complaint of employers is that they cannot find enough qualified workers to fill open positions. Increasingly, however, companies are taking the matter into their own hands: If the market isn’t supplying enough skilled workers, then the company can build its own pipeline via apprentice programs.
According to some estimates, as many as 7 million jobs go unfilled in the United States every year. It’s a complex problem with multiple causes, and therefore hasn’t historically lent itself to a silver bullet. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns exacerbated the problem, as many employees lost jobs or left the workforce. In some sectors, particularly health care and in science and engineering, the gap is especially acute, which puts a damper on economic growth.
The term “apprentice” is often associated with a pre-industrial past, and with artisanal trades like metalworking. But several 21st-century companies have created effective and potent apprenticeship programs, including for high-tech positions. Apprentice programs have several clear advantages. They allow workers to acquire skills quickly, often without needing a two- or four-year college degree. Apprentices can get on a valuable career path at an early age. For employers, apprenticeships can provide skilled, motivated workers, who can be custom-trained for exactly the company’s needs. Such programs also often help employers meet diversity goals, not to mention create opportunity for talent that has often otherwise been marginalized. And the broader economic impact is significant; the US Department of Labor estimates that apprenticeships have grown to add as many as 250,000 jobs every year. The pandemic reversed that growth somewhat, but the apprentice trend will continue.
Aon, a global professional services firm, has been leading the charge on the apprenticeship wave. It launched an apprenticeship program and network in Chicago in 2017 that has been so successful the company is expanding these networks – together with leading companies including Accenture, JP Morgan Chase, The Hartford and Zurich Insurance – into six more cities, including Houston, New York and Washington, DC. Aon’s goal is to work with its partners to grow the network to encourage the creation of 10,000 apprentices across the country by 2030.
“The apprenticeship program has brought so many talented colleagues to our firm and we know it has tremendous potential to create new opportunities and professional networks for both apprentices and participating employers across the United States,” said Greg Case, chief executive officer of Aon. “This is an innovative way for employers to attract and retain diverse talent, prepare future leaders and contribute to building a more future-focused, resilient workforce.”
How does the network source apprentice recruits? Typically, it works alongside local nonprofits to identify qualified candidates. “We look for people who have some demonstrated track record of work, whether they’re working at McDonald’s or Amazon,” says Janet Osborn, resident managing director for Aon in Washington and Baltimore, “as long as they have shown that they can show up for work and they’re serious about advancing their career.”
One network partner is CityWorks DC in Washington, DC, a nonprofit that offers apprentice programs to high school students and recent graduates and provides apprenticeship support for employer-sponsored programs like Aon’s. Lateefah Durant, CityWorks DC’s vice president of innovation, says her organization strives to provide young workers with “credentials and certifications that they need, paid relevant work experience, as well as the support of a professional network.” She describes this as “the social mobility trifecta.” Organizations like CityWorks DC act as a funnel to Aon and other employers for their own apprentice programs.
“By bringing professional apprenticeships to additional cities across America, we will help thousands more underserved people become job-ready for the roles of today and tomorrow. These pathways to employment and a more inclusive workforce are a powerful example of how we can truly make a difference for our businesses, our communities and the people in our communities,” said Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture, which has hired more than 120 apprentices in Chicago alone since 2016.
What’s it like to be an apprentice? Kash Brantley is a 26-year-old Chicago native who went to public school and dreamed of working on an animated television series. She was interested in a career in psychology, but the graduate school requirements for that field were not economically available to her. She decided instead to develop technology skills, and enrolled in a program offered by i.c.stars, a local nonprofit. They put her through a rigorous “boot camp” of 12-hour days, where she learned valuable programming skills. She worked on, among other things, the prototype for a mobile gaming app, designed to teach financial literacy to young adults.
While there she met a recruiter from Aon and thought its apprenticeship program sounded like a good fit for her. “I didn’t realize that it was a very competitive thing,” she recalls. “I was just kind of chill about it.” She worked on automating processes in the software that Aon uses to retrieve documents, even as she continued to take classes in business and computer science. She received her DOL certificate and associate’s degree in December 2020 and is now a full-time Aon employee.
Aon apprentices receive not only training and a paycheck, but Aon also covers the cost of tuition, books and fees while apprentices pursue their associate’s degrees. And in Brantley’s case, for example, she is considering moving to a different part of the company to continue to enhance her career skills at Aon. As for Aon, the company gets talent it can mold to fit its business needs. Moreover, Osborn notes, the apprenticeship tends to instill loyalty that can be hard to find with other populations. “We’re in the war for talent with everybody else, and we are using this as the talent strategy to try to get people who we believe will stay with us longer and contribute more to the firm,” Osborn notes.