CHICAGO — Rigoberto Velazquez had a bachelor’s degree in psychology from DePaul University and a steady job at a home health agency, but wasn’t sure what he really wanted to do with his life. So he started taking classes part-time at Wilbur Wright community college, part of the City Colleges of Chicago, where he fell in love with computers.
Velazquez went on to earn an associate’s degree in computer information systems, and soon was in a pilot apprenticeship program at Accenture, a professional services company, working in the information technology department alongside colleagues with advanced technology degrees.
When the pilot ended, Velazquez and the three other apprentices were hired, which he doubts would have been possible had they not had the chance to prove their worth.
“I was beside myself, I would have been happy with a help desk job anywhere just to get my foot in the door,” Velazquez said. “To work at Accenture, that’s quite a quantum leap.”
Accenture, which in August made its pilot program permanent, committing to bring on 25 apprentices annually for the next five years, is among a small but growing number of white-collar companies investing in earn-and-learn programs typically associated with skilled construction trades.
Apprenticeships, which pair paid jobs with relevant education, are at the forefront of bipartisan workforce strategies. Advocates promote them as a solution to fill employers’ talent needs, give young people a debt-free path to solid careers and help workers like Velazquez transition to new fields of employment.
Insurance firms Aon and Zurich North America have begun apprenticeship programs in Chicago, and the Chicago Apprentice Network — newly launched by Aon and Accenture — aims to get more companies on board. Rush University Medical Center is leading discussions with hospital systems in the area about establishing a joint health care apprenticeship. And traditional trades programs are using apprenticeships to extend a hand to underserved communities whose residents haven’t had the means or networks to win coveted slots.
Much like the Obama administration, the Trump administration has been a vocal supporter of apprenticeships. President Donald Trump in June signed an executive order calling for doubling the amount of federal grants that support apprenticeships to $200 million. More controversially, he called for the Labor Department to propose regulations to allow third parties, such as trade groups, to set standards for government-funded apprenticeships.
Critics worry that the quality of the training will suffer if government oversight of federally funded apprenticeship programs is rolled back. Those programs are required, among other things, to assign mentors to participants and award incremental wage increases.
But Bob Lerman, a fellow at the Urban Institute and a leading scholar on apprenticeships, said broad-based industry standards could raise quality and establish international frameworks common in countries with robust apprenticeship programs.
“My concern is that we need to make very significant progress in the next couple of years, or people will try to move on to the next big thing and conclude that maybe we can’t do a robust system in America,” Lerman said. The U.S. had more than 505,000 active apprentices in 2016, up from 375,000 three years earlier. Lerman hopes to reach 4 million.
Apprenticeships represent a cost for companies, but research shows that the programs can be well worth the investment.
International studies suggest that for every dollar spent on apprenticeship, employers may get an average $1.47 back in increased productivity, reduced waste and more innovation, according to the Labor Department. A review of Washington state’s workforce training outcomes found apprenticeships boosted participants’ future taxable incomes and thus yielded a $23 return for every public dollar spent, compared with a $3 return for community college.
The leap into apprenticeships has paid off for Accenture, said North America CEO Julie Sweet. The apprentices at her company have exhibited a loyalty and eagerness to grow that makes “this a great business decision as well as a contribution to our community,” she said.
Sweet also sees broad social benefits to expanding apprenticeships as more job tasks are automated and people are forced to make midcareer shifts.
“If we get this right as a country, it could be an important tool to help the disruption,” Sweet said. “This is a very tangible way to get people to re-skill in the future.”
Advanced manufacturing, which needs skilled labor, is one growth area for apprenticeships. The industry faces a talent shortfall as baby boomers who dominate its workforce retire and young people raised to prioritize college retain outdated perceptions of factory jobs.
But even in manufacturing, which has a longer history with apprenticeships than some white-collar fields, one of the biggest challenges has been convincing employers to see the long-term benefit of such programs, said Mario Kratsch, vice president of the German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest.
The Industry Consortium for Advanced Technical Training landed a $3.9 million Labor Department grant in 2015 to start an advanced manufacturing apprenticeship program, beginning with seven Chicago-area employers and seven apprentices. The program has grown — this year 27 companies and 32 apprentices are participating — but many companies are wary of the costs associated with participating, said Kratsch, whose group partnered with the Illinois Manufacturing Association and several community colleges to form the consortium.
Participating companies pay the chamber a management fee to run the program and also fund apprentices’ wages, cover their community college tuition and designate a supervisor for them. It can take years for some apprentices to become productive, and even then, employers worry that they may not stick around for the long term, Kratsch said.
Those risks are among the factors employers consider when deciding whether to make the investment.
“But the other question that should be asked is, ‘What happens if we do not invest in our workforce?’” Kratsch said. As more companies pool their efforts, losing talent to competitors becomes less of a risk, he said.
Rebecca Lake, dean of workforce and economic development at Harper College in Palatine, Ill., hopes to drum up more employer interest in new apprenticeship curricula she is developing in nontraditional sectors to address specific skill shortages.
Harper was awarded a $2.5 million federal grant in 2015 to sponsor registered apprenticeships and has launched six programs, including general insurance, cybersecurity and supply chain management. Lake is writing five more proposals for programs — among them sales and sales merchandising, banking and finance, private security and graphic art print production — in response to employer input.
Lake said she has been approached by the Illinois Bankers Association with a request for midlevel loan officers, and from car dealers saying they struggle to find salespeople who will move up to managing service departments.
The school has 23 employer partners and 75 apprentices, who receive credit-bearing associate degrees that will help them to transfer to four-year schools if they wish, plus portable industry credentials, she said. That’s important so that apprentices don’t see it as being trained for a single job at a single company but rather as a first step in their careers.
Early results are promising: 84 percent of apprentices are still in their programs and are averaging a 3.61 GPA. Employers report that apprentices can perform 80 to 85 percent of a full workload by the end of the second semester of their six-semester degree, Lake said.
In addition to addressing skills gaps, apprenticeships are being used to combat high unemployment among youths in disadvantaged communities.
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Opportunity in July announced the launch of Apprenticeship Plus, a pilot program targeting 16- to 24-year-olds, funded by $1.5 million in federal Labor Department grants that will be spread across nine programs around the state. More than 300 youths will be trained in construction, health care, IT and manufacturing.
There also are growing efforts to expand access to existing apprenticeships in the building trades by breaking down barriers that have made it hard for people to find out about those opportunities or succeed in them. Transportation, in particular, is a big concern, as many training programs are in the suburbs and construction jobs move around, requiring a car many people can’t afford.
Dan Allen, executive director of Construction Industry Service Corp., which represents construction contractors and union workers, said the trades have long been committed to diversity — nearly half of the 5,600 union workers in Cook County are women or minorities — but with Access United the hope is to effect long-term change in communities that struggle with poverty.
“You can change the dynamics you’re seeing with the chain reaction of having someone in the family with a good-paying lifelong career,” Allen said.
There have been challenges. The pretest leaves many people frustrated because it’s been a long time since they learned math, said Nichole Carter, coordinator with the Greater Bronzeville Neighborhood Network, one of the community partners. But the effort is being embraced, slowly.
“I think there is skepticism that this will work because people haven’t always felt welcome in the trades,” Carter said. “I think the more wins we have, the better it will be.”
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