A wave of apprenticeship programs in the tech industry have been generating media buzz. Among the organizations receiving attention include education startup Multiverse, which has raised $220 million for its apprenticeship program, and Accenture, which has launched its apprenticeship program in numerous cities throughout the U.S. Some media outlets have been framing these apprenticeship programs as a counterpoint to the spate of layoffs that have also been occurring in the tech sector. Some commentators proclaim apprenticeships as being the solution to joblessness during a recession, while others frame them as the solution to the tech industry’s diversity problem.
The reality is that apprenticeships in the U.S. defy any sweeping pronouncements of this kind, and to understand why, we need to look at what differentiates apprenticeships here from apprenticeships in the region where they first originated, Europe. During the Middle Ages, apprenticeships were arrangements wherein young workers would learn a craft on the job, such as masonry or blacksmithing, under the tutelage of a master craftsman. In return for their labor, these apprentices would receive food, lodging, and the transmission of skills. There was clarity in what both master craftsman and apprentice would be getting out of this exchange.
Modern day apprenticeships in Europe are more complex than during the medieval era, but they are nevertheless highly regulated and have extensive governmental oversight. In general, there is clarity and intentionality in purpose, objective, and implementation. For example, in my book, Working to Learn: Disrupting the Divide Between College and Career Pathways for Young People, I describe the Swiss model in which apprenticeship programs are collectively viewed as an investment in both their financial health and in the workforce as a whole. Available jobs are viewed as the “demand” side of the apprenticeship system and potential participants are seen as the “supply” side, with the Swiss government acting as the intermediary between these two markets.
Apprenticeships in the U.S., on the other hand, are highly decentralized, unregulated, and fragmented in terms of their purpose, objectives, and implementation. They are often founded to solve specific challenges organizations face, which may or may not have any relation to the economy as a whole or to diversity-related concerns. For these reasons, it is much more difficult to make any grand statements about what the current proliferation of apprenticeship programs means. Apprenticeships in the U.S., therefore, must necessarily be assessed on a case-by-case basis to forecast their implications for the future of the workforce and/or for DEI.
In general, a few questions need to be asked and answered about each individual apprenticeship program:
Toward what end is the apprenticeship program being targeted, and why?
As mentioned, organizations in the U.S. launch apprenticeship programs for a wide variety of reasons. Some programs were formed as a result of tech organizations consistently not being able to show improvements in the hiring and retention of underrepresented groups. Here, apprenticeships are seen as solutions for improving DEI outcomes. Another reason for apprenticeship programs is to function as a way to incorporate nontraditional workers, such as older workers, into the workforce, something we’ve been seeing in the finance industry, for example.
Other apprenticeship programs are intended as a strategy to fill nontechnical roles and tasks in a tech company that, say, engineers might be doing that they don’t need to be doing and which are a drain on their time. Such jobs would technically be in the tech industry but, being that they are for nontechnical roles, would have very different implications than apprenticeship programs that actually fill technical roles. A company wide DEI goal can be impacted but a STEM-specific DEI goal would not.
Asking what a specific apprenticeship program is for, and why, is particularly important because organizations may not even be clear on the answers themselves. Yet without this clarity and intentionality, there is no way to measure whether a program is succeeding in its aims and there’s the risk of it becoming little more than a PR campaign or a glorified internship.
How is the program being financially subsidized?
There has been increased government interest in subsidizing apprenticeship programs as a way to strengthen the economy. But if an apprenticeship program is receiving federal subsidies, there needs to be accountability and transparency, particularly with regards to the purported goals and ways to measure whether the program’s outcomes are meeting those goals or not.
What is the conversion rate for the program?
The point of apprenticeships is to lead to full-time hires at significant numbers, if not within the company where the apprenticeship was completed then at least within the same industry. Again, if this is not occurring, then the apprenticeship program is actually a glorified internship or temping program.
Due to the highly fragmented and siloed nature of apprenticeship programs in the U.S., the answers to these questions vary wildly depending on the organization. For this reason, it isn’t constructive to forecast what apprenticeships mean for the future of the tech workforce, specifically, or for the economy in general. Despite the temptation to reduce something complex into a simplified sound bite, the reality is that each apprenticeship program means something different depending on the answers to the aforementioned questions. And unless organizations are fine with arbitrary results, they will need to bring a high level of clarity and intentionality to their respective programs.
Lisette Nieves is the president of the Fund for the City of New York and is a distinguished clinical professor at New York University.