Apprenticeships can fill skills gap

Michele Economou Ureste

Michigan is hiring, but many employers struggle to fill open positions and keep them filled.

Much has been written, discussed, and reported about a major skills gap that continues to grow across numerous industry sectors, threatening Michigan’s economy from continuing to recover and prosper. Enter registered apprenticeships to help reduce this gap. Apprenticeship is a time-tested, but still much misunderstood, talent strategy that has been deemed vital on a national scale, with a nationwide goal of creating 5 million apprenticeships in just five years. It is an ambitious undertaking but one for which a roadmap is already being put in place here in Michigan.

The Advance Michigan Center for Apprenticeship Innovation (AMCAI), led by the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance (SEMCA) and Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN), convenes community colleges, local and regional companies, and workforce/economic development partners to greatly expand registered apprenticeships across 13 counties in southeast Michigan. AMCAI aims to set standards to simplify the process of starting, developing and launching registered apprenticeship programs for employers and, ultimately, grow apprenticeship opportunities regionally and statewide.

Registered, paid apprenticeships are approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, ensuring that skills earned are not only relevant, but also accompanied by a certificate of completion. As regional partners work to develop a skilled workforce for in-demand occupations, an opportunity lies in this proven model for rapid right skills development and talent retention. Rather than a consolation prize, apprenticeships should be considered a first choice for those looking to jump-start their careers. While the process for getting an apprenticeship started is sometimes perceived as intimidating by business owners, AMCAI’s efforts help to eliminate barriers to launch and create win-win opportunities with true ROI for employers and apprentices.

This is especially significant as we continue to dispel the misconception many school counselors, parents, and potential apprentices have towards apprenticeships — the false perception that rewarding and lucrative careers are only accessible through a four-year degree or that apprentice positions are only available in back-breaking, “dirty fingernail” occupations. Rather, apprenticeships are a viable option with long histories of success in industries like manufacturing and construction, while continuing to grow in “non-traditional” sectors such as IT and health care; leading to high-paying careers without the burden of student loan debt.

Employers often reiterate skepticism of the apprenticeship model, albeit for different reasons. They are concerned their level of investment in developing workplace talent will not be reciprocated: fearing attrition, implementation costs and lack of scalability. Rather, for every dollar spent on an apprenticeship, employers get an average of $1.47 back, according to the Dept. of Labor, in increased productivity. Apprenticeships for some occupations – such as millwrights or sheet metal workers – see even greater returns, up to $5 for every dollar spent. Moreover, investing in employees creates loyalty, and 91 percent of apprentices retain employment after their respective program ends.

Though we are making progress, it is clear we have work to do. A brand new online resource, MIApprenticeship.org, has just been launched along with an Apprenticeship Hotline (734-229-3559), to provide information about apprenticeships to stakeholders, employers, potential apprentices, and workforce development professionals. Achieving proposed targets will take focused support from every stakeholder. Our future depends on it.

Michele Economou Ureste is executive director of Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan.