Apprenticeship is making a comeback, and the centuries-old concept is proving itself readily adaptable to the modern world.
With a critical skilled labor shortage that developed and solidified during The Great Recession, renewed attention to the apprenticeship model was a natural response within the construction trades.
In recent years, the apprenticeship model has made inroads into more contemporary career fields, eliciting closer attention from state officials interested in improving Maryland’s workforce.
In 2016, the Hogan administration enacted legislation transferring Maryland’s Registered Apprenticeship program to the Division of Workforce Development and Adult Learning, which provided key resources for the growth and expansion of Registered Apprenticeships.
According to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Labor Regulation’s (DLLR) 2016 annual report on the Maryland Apprenticeship and Training Program, DLLR serves more than 9,000 active apprentices and 3,500 participating employers, working with more than 230 approved registered occupations and maintaining 417 programs statewide.
The state’s stated goal is to align Registered Apprenticeships with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) system to ensure traditional apprenticeship opportunities are grounded in market demand.
Fixing a Hole
Locally, apprenticeship in the construction trades gets an added boost from the Baltimore-based Construction Labor Contractors (CLC), a skilled labor provider that handles the brunt of administrative needs so contractors and subcontractors can focus on work scheduling.
“We use our website as a portal for people looking for apprenticeships,” said CLC General Manager Doug Macpherson. “It’s done at the local level, where we access and use job boards and partner with companies, like Indeed and Zip Recruiter.”
CLC also networks through its referrals to find talent.
Currently, the highest demand for skilled labor comes from the electrical field, Macpherson said, followed closely by carpentry, HVAC and plumbing.
“Within the carpentry and HVAC disciplines, the biggest demand covers the spectrum from journeyman to apprentice to helper level,” he said. “Over the last five years, those needs have been pretty standard and haven’t changed.”
Getting to this point has been a slow process that started in the 1980s, Macpherson observed.
“There was this emphasis on getting a higher education to better yourself, and I think many of us followed that path,” he said. “There might have been a bit of stigma attached to manual labor. Over time, as the skilled trades folks retired from the workforce, there was no one to backfill.”
Many other construction workers were forced to leave the trades when the housing bubble burst, he added, and relatively few returned.
Apprenticeship is only one part — and one side — of the solution, Macpherson said.
“Construction companies need to do a better job of marketing construction as a viable and lucrative career choice,” he said. “Kids are coming out of college saddled with debt and finding that there’s nothing there for them.”
While traditional apprenticeships have been well provided for over the years by unions and group associations like Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC) Chesapeake, other sectors haven’t enjoyed the same history of nurturing.
TranZed Apprenticeship Services (TAS), in Baltimore County, Maryland’s first registered apprenticeship program, launched in October 2016.
“We’re focusing on information technology, digital and social media, and cybersecurity apprenticeships,” said TAS President Paul Champion, and the interest is huge.
“We get about 40 applications a month,” he said. “The biggest challenge is to get employers turned on to it, because it’s a very different approach for an industry that has never taken on apprentices in the past.”
Even so, the program was able to sign on 24 apprentices in its first year, and the gates could open much wider if employers can be talked out of seeing college degrees as the sole tribute that must be paid to enter the workforce.
“I think the conversation has to start with the employer,” Champion said. “Apprenticeships will hopefully help us convince employers to start advertising jobs seeking applicants with college degrees or the ability to complete an apprenticeship.”
To help sell the idea, TAS is launching an incentive called Open for Apprenticeships, which is designed to align with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s Open for Business initiative.
“We’re going to go into businesses, review entry- and mid-level jobs, and identify those jobs that would be apprenticeable,” he said. “They’ll get a certificate, we’ll put them on our website as employers that have been through the process … and when they have a vacancy we’ll be able to consider an apprentice as a possible [candidate] for the job. We’re doing that free of charge.”
TAS’s approach aims to help workers acquire the same knowledge they would get in college, but without the debt, and would allow employers to fill jobs that typically remain vacant for long periods of time.
It’s a model that TAS hopes to expand into other fields.
“We’re talking to various people in FinTech (financial technology), biotech, automotive retail, even teaching assistants,” Champion said. “We’re also branching out into new states in the new year, into the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania.”
To help develop the talent pipeline for its apprenticeship programs, TAS works with training partners that include the Baltimore Cyber Range, the Maryland Tech Council and the Cybersecurity Association of Maryland Inc. (CAMI), organizations that have ongoing contact with people looking for jobs in the sectors TAS serves.
During the last legislative session, a proposal to study the feasibility of establishing a more European style of apprenticeship program in Maryland did not make it out of committee, and is something Champion thinks may be unnecessary.
“The British model and European model work in Britain and Europe because they’ve got a culture of apprenticeships,” he said. “In my view and the view of TranZed, the U.S. needs a U.S. model.”
What that means for TAS, he said, is bringing the best aspects of different apprenticeship models from around the world to employers and tailoring something that best suits their industry’s needs.
And for now, that’s where TAS is placing the emphasis.
“The more we can talk about the benefits of apprenticeship and what jobs are available,” Champion said, “the more likely people looking for a career will be to realize that college isn’t the only option.”