Why the U.S. Needs More Apprenticeship (and Less Cowbell)

There is a famous scene from Saturday Night Live in which Will Ferrell is playing a cowbell as he and his bandmates belt out a classic Blue Öyster Cult song. Will Ferrell looks ridiculous and completely out of place. Meanwhile, Christopher Walken is constantly interrupting the song and imploring, "We need more cowbell!" If this scene were interpreted to reflect a workforce development theme, the "cowbell" on stage would be replaced by the "instrument" of apprenticeship. Like a cowbell, apprenticeships are still seen as a novelty instrument in the workforce development chorus and are also vastly underutilized -- but the analogy stops there. The reality is that apprenticeship models deserve far more respect. While they might be a little out of synch and disruptive, that is exactly what the system needs: more apprenticeship.

There are many differences in approaches to workforce development between the U.S. and Western Europe or Canada, but perhaps none so stark as the adoption and implementation of apprenticeship programs. England, with only a sixth of America's population, has approximately five times the number of new registered apprentices each year. Even in Canada, with approximately 10 percent of the population of the U.S., there are more apprentices than in the States. The reasons for this are historic, structural and ingrained. In my discussions with key corporate, union, government and workforce leaders across the U.S., it is clear we are now experiencing a deliberate and thoughtful pivot towards apprenticeships. To that end, the Obama administration's recent announcement of the $100 million American Apprenticeships Grant Competition is an important and symbolic step forward.

The U.S. government is currently spending an average of $718 per apprentice, with the balance covered by employers, unions and industry groups. In contrast, Canadian apprenticeship is paid for in large part by provincial governments and the public funds used can top 10 to 50 times this amount. The increased public investment is certainly a big part of the difference in apprenticeship adoption -- but not all. While I am not advocating a shift to Canadian or European-style apprenticeship investment for the U.S., extra money always helps. That said, the historic lack of uptake in apprenticeships in the U.S. is not only about money.

In America, there is a far narrower view of where an apprenticeship offering can work. The good news is that this simply requires a change in perspective. While apprenticeships are possible for many career areas, in the U.S., the focus appears to be overwhelmingly on trades. And unfortunately, apprenticeships have become wrapped up in the ideological positions for or against organized labor. While organized labor has played a key role in apprenticeships through their use in qualifying for construction jobs, apprenticeships work well in both unionized and non-unionized careers and industries. In fact, the potential careers that can benefit from apprenticeships extend far beyond traditional building trades. Possible non-traditional areas include careers such as medical transcription, manufacturing, hospitality, IT support and even receptionist work.

A third barrier is the lack of technology used to implement, manage and streamline apprenticeship programs. This lack of technology is what drew me to this area a few years ago. Like so much in workforce development, simple but highly impactful technical solutions are crying out for affection. Momentum is perhaps the most valuable (and most lacking) commodity in the world of apprenticeships, and technology can play a role in creating it.

A bigger question is: Why? Why bother with apprenticeships, given all the workforce problems and opportunities that confront us? No doubt we have all read and heard about the skills gap and the different ways to address it. Here is where apprenticeships shine. They are a perfect remedy for the skills gap by their very nature. By design, there are fewer skills gaps in careers that use apprenticeships, because the jobs are already there, waiting for people -- and apprenticeship programs specifically target the skills that people need to perform well in those available jobs. Hence, there should be very little mismatch between job seekers and employers. Apprenticeships are "perfect skills gap busters."

The drawbacks of apprenticeship include the logistics required to set up the programs, the low "graduation" rates in some careers, and the added energy, time and money required from sponsors. I put all of these challenges in the category of "nothing worth having comes easy." What is undisputed in the research is that apprenticeships work: they create employee loyalty, increase productivity, create jobs and provide win-win solutions for employers and job seekers.

Fortunately, there are many great innovations across the U.S. that help tackle the challenges of expanding apprenticeships. And soon there will be $100 million more put forward to help propel apprenticeships forward. While that kind of money could be used to buy a lot of cowbells, I hope it is used wisely to buy a future ringing with the confident -- albeit offbeat -- sounds of apprenticeships all across the U.S.