Something’s happening in the U.S. economy right now. And it’s mostly good – business expansion, low unemployment, tightening labor markets, rising stock market prices and record profit shares. But underneath all the good news is a fundamental workforce problem. Companies want to grow – they have the means and the market to grow – but they can’t find skilled workers.
That’s right – there are a lot of jobs, and a lot of people looking for jobs. But there’s a mismatch between the skills jobseekers have and skills employers need. In some cases, companies have to put off expansion plans because of this mismatch. Entire communities might find themselves unable to attract and retain businesses because of this mismatch. There’s a siren going off and we need to pay attention.
Why is this happening? One reason is that our system for developing talent is out of synch with employer needs. Workplaces are changing rapidly. New technology is eliminating a certain class of jobs – those that consist of repetitive tasks or processes. But it’s creating another class of jobs – those who maintain, manage and program new technology. In other words, people who can work with technology are in demand.
Working with technology requires a different skill set than has been traditionally taught in high school and college. More than ever, prospective workers need technical skills – they need to know how to run the machines, robots and programs that increasingly make up the modern workplace.
But there’s more to it than that. Modern workers need to be tinkerers and problem-solvers. They need to know how to ask questions, when and how to get help, how to work in teams and communicate effectively with both machines and their co-workers. This is a skill set not typically obtained with a traditional four-year college degree.
What’s the answer? For many years now, I’ve been promoting apprenticeship, and I believe now is the right time for a system of modern apprenticeship in the U.S. When I say modern apprenticeship, I mean a system that goes beyond the traditional trades (though those are still a great way to get skills that lead to well-paying jobs) and branches out to all sectors, including finance, healthcare, tech, hospitality, and green sciences. Pretty much any expanding business sector can use modern apprenticeship to get the skilled workforce it needs.
Apprenticeships have several key components that benefit both employees and employers. Employees get customized classroom and on-the-job training while earning a wage. They get guidance and feedback from workplace mentors to maximize the benefits of their on-the-job learning and experience. And those that complete the apprenticeship successfully get a nationally recognized credential (for Registered Apprenticeships) and usually some credit towards an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Meanwhile, employers get trained employees with skills that match the job roles they need now and in the future. Many companies have also found that apprenticeship programs increase employee loyalty, engagement and productivity (for both apprentices and their mentors). And some companies are using apprenticeships specifically to diversify their workforce – with positive effects for both the business and the community.
Apprenticeships aren’t magic. But they are a proven system for developing a skilled workforce precisely suited to employer needs. Other highly successful economies have been using an apprenticeship system for years (Switzerland, Australia, the UK). Now it’s our time. In fact, many prominent American companies are already investing in apprenticeship, including LinkedIn, Lockheed Martin, JP Morgan Chase, Amazon, Adobe and Mailchimp.
Now is the right time to start an apprenticeship program. The federal government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in apprenticeship – funds that are available to private sector employers, local and state governments and nonprofits that want to initiate or ramp up an apprenticeship program.
Forward-thinking businesses and communities will certainly take advantage of that funding, and all that apprenticeship has to offer. It’s time to become one of them.