The Return of Apprenticeships as a Pathway to Talent Diversification

The apprenticeship career pathway, once confined to skilled labor, is making a comeback in white collar professions and can be an effective way for employers to engage young adults with disabilities while diversifying their workforce. By the same token, successful apprenticeships require stakeholder engagement between employers, educators, and local government, and perform best when they are business-driven and aligned with workforce needs. Luckily, we have a proven evidence-based model in the Swiss Apprenticeship System, which has shown to be a global economic leader in apprenticeship.

A relative newcomer to the apprenticeship arena, Colorado-based CareerWise, is partnering with businesses, industry associations, school districts, and policymakers in the first year of their pilot program. With funding from JPMorgan Chase, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, and others, CareerWise has an ambitious goal of creating over 20,000 apprenticeships in high-demand Colorado occupations over the next ten years. What makes CareerWise stand out among their peers, however, is their tenacity in modeling their program after the reputable Swiss Apprenticeship System. In Switzerland, apprenticeship is a national government-led but business-aligned initiative used as the primary pathway to employment for over 70% of young adults aged 15–20 prior to fully entering the workforce. The success of the Swiss approach to apprenticeship is heavily reliant on linkage between business and education, whereby apprentices spend 30% of their time learning hard skills through a vocational school, and 70% of their time in the business environment working on teams.

Another shining example of successful apprenticeship in the U.S. is Zurich Insurance Group, who is joining forces with risk management powerhouse, Aon, and the Department of Labor to revolutionize the financial services industry in Chicago. Staying true to their Swiss roots, Zurich Insurance Group has partnered with Harper College in Chicago to train at least 100 apprentices in financial services by 2020. About the initiative, Zurich North America Commercial CEO Mike Foley stated, “Apprenticeship programs represent a win-win opportunity for students and employers… Students get paid a salary to gain experience from business professionals in established companies, while earning a tuition-free degree, and businesses can gain access to a new pool of talent specifically trained for their needs.”

As employers increasingly acknowledge the performance and retainment gains of diverse workforces over homogeneous ones, apprenticeships can be an innovative reduced-risk approach to engaging more diverse populations, particularly young adults with disabilities. However, we as stakeholders in disability and employment need to do a better job of following the Swiss model of apprenticeship and align our employment initiatives to the needs of businesses. Creating a win-win scenario through apprenticeship requires economic alignment and linkage to stakeholders who are going to work collaboratively to achieve their collective goals. Additionally, we need to make an effort to be more transparent in sharing best practices when apprenticeships succeed and when challenges arise.

Truth be told, apprenticeships are not trivial approaches to employment for under-skilled workers, but have the potential to offer transformative career success for millions of underemployed and unemployed young adults with disabilities. If there’s one sure way of making both economic and social progress while engaging stakeholders across business, education, and government, it’s through smartly-design apprenticeship programs.

The next question is: Does your company have an apprenticeship program? If not, let’s get started.

Author Bio: Josef Scarantino is Co-Founder & CEO of EightTen, a social enterprise aimed at increasing engagement of people with disabilities in the labor force through innovative programs, services, and business-driven initiatives. Josef offers nearly twenty years of experience in program design, strategic partnership development, and innovation leadership. Josef’s breadth of experience has extended to a wide array of advisory roles, board positions, and mentorships to individuals and startup businesses. His work has included developing and managing partnerships with high profile organizations such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, Mitsubishi, Sprint, Motorola, TechShop, among many other organizations and universities. Josef can be reached at josef@eightten.co.