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Apprenticeships, long common in blue-collar industries, are coming to white-collar office work

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

Andrew Skelnik grew up in what he calls a “strong blue-collar background” in Chicago. His father was an electrician, his uncle was a carpenter and his first job out of high school was in the mailroom of a printing plant, where he worked his way up to become a pressman. The word “apprenticeship,” to him, meant learning a similar skilled trade: He was waitlisted for two he applied for at local unions earlier in his career.

But after he began studying computer programming while working in a warehouse, Skelnik, 29, was approached by a career adviser at his community college about a different kind of apprenticeship. He was offered a chance to work for a year at Accenture, the consulting and business services giant, where he got training on software platforms and mentoring on “soft skills” like résumé writing as he continued to take classes at night.

“They were investing in me, so I was hopeful that after everything was done I’d be working here,” Skelnik said. In June, he was hired full-time as a software engineering analyst. The biggest surprise about corporate office life? He says senior managers are more approachable than he’d expected. Oh, and “there’s always free coffee.”

Like a small but growing number of companies, Accenture is launching a program that’s long been associated in the U.S. with skilled trades or manufacturing rather than white-collar careers. Aon, JPMorgan Chase, Amazon and the Hartford are also among the businesses that have begun apprenticeships, combining instruction time with paid on-the-job experience for workers who aren’t quite yet qualified for the job.

Many newer apprenticeship programs are technology-oriented — training people for positions such as internal tech support or software programming. But they’re also training human resources analysts, insurance customer support agents, account managers and more.

“Up until the recent attention I’d go to conferences and speak about apprenticeships,” said Nicholas Wyman, chief executive of a workplace skills consultancy, “and they’d think I was talking about a reality TV show or building construction.”

Indeed, the idea is gaining traction with CEOs well outside the manufacturing field. Marc Benioff, the CEO of cloud software company, suggested in a roundtable with President Trump earlier this year that he aims for a “moonshot” of 5 million apprenticeships in the next five years. “When you have the IBMs and Amazons and Microsofts talking about it, I believe it generates a conversation,” said Eric Seleznow, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Labor Department in the Obama administration.

Many programs are starting tiny, some with fewer than 25 apprentices, and there are still plenty of challenges to growing them to scale. “It’s a drop in the bucket for [some of] those companies,” said Wyman, saying there’s a long way to go before the U.S. reaches 5 million apprenticeships.

Encouraging businesses

Unlike internships, apprenticeships combine instruction with paid work, usually over a longer period of time, and typically lead to a full-time job. Many employers register their apprenticeship programs with the Department of Labor. It is not mandatory, but doing so can help build their prestige and provide access to certain public funds or resources, according to Brent Parton, deputy director of the Center on Education and Skills at the think tank New America. Registered programs must meet certain requirements, such as giving apprentices pay increases as they gain skills.

The president from “The Apprentice” TV series, however, is looking to make some changes. In June, Trump signed an executive order aimed at expanding the concept, in part by establishing “industry-recognized apprenticeships” that would be developed by third parties such as industry groups or companies. While they may not be subject to the same requirements as registered apprenticeships, a senior White House official said they would still require Department of Labor approval to be eligible for grants and credentials.

Somesay this could encourage more businesses to start apprenticeship programs, but others fear it will only confuse them. “If I’m an employer and I’m already confused about apprenticeships, this is just going to make my head hurt more,” said New America’s Parton, who was a Labor Department adviser in the Obama administration.

Trump’s Labor Department, which plans to add between $105 million and $200 million in additional funds to the $95 million set aside for apprenticeships, is not the first administration to see their promise. Apprenticeships have long had bipartisan appeal — currentbills have sponsors on both sides of the aisle, and state programs have been pushed by both Democratic and Republican governors. The Obama administration announced $175 million of apprenticeship grants in 2015, helping to jump-start the more recent push.

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