White Collar Apprenticeships

We don’t know how long the impact of the current global pandemic will last, but it has already dramatically changed the way we look at education and work. Many universities aren’t going back to in-person classes until 2021, and that has many students re-evaluating their education options. One option that might gain popularity is a relatively new one: white collar apprenticeships.

According to a 2019 New York Times article, states are starting to recognize the value of training under a skilled professional, which is much more accessible for minority workers than traditional education. “In California, one of a handful of states where people can take the bar exam without going to law school [Virginia, Washington, and Vermont also allow someone to “read law” and take the state bar exam], a new program helps low-income Black and Latina women become lawyers by apprenticing for four years under an experienced attorney. In Kentucky, young people are offered the chance to shadow experienced social workers and join the state’s Civil Service. In Chicago, community college students are training to become human resource managers and insurance brokers.”

In the U.S., apprenticeships still have an old school reputation as a way to train for a skilled trade, but Europe has had a white collar apprenticeship model for years. In the U.S., where the concept is mostly about training electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and other trades, only five percent of young people enroll in apprenticeship programs.  In a country like Germany, the number is closer to 60 percent, in industries that range from manufacturing to finance and hospitality.

Apprenticeship models are “learn and earn” models. Apprentices spend about half their time in the classroom learning important concepts, but they spend the other half of their time working under a skilled mentor and earning a learning wage. (Unlike traditional college students, who spend the other half of their learning time working low-wage jobs – or being served beers by their fellow students.)

The other difference in European workforce training models is that they’re not an alternative for disadvantaged students or those who can’t afford college, which is often the impression here in the states. The European apprenticeship model is a choice for everyone who is interested in building a career in an industry that allows them to grow and progress. And the programs are enormously competitive. Each year, Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt receives 22,000 applicants for 425 places.

In the U.S., IT has been one industry that has been an early adopter of the learn and earn model. It makes sense for an industry where technology is changing constantly and workers are in high demand. IT workers are lifelong learners anyway, and the technology they learn must be adapted to specific business uses for each company; it makes more sense for businesses to grow their own rather than wait for workers to emerge from the university system.

The Swiss have one of the most well-developed programs in the world, and apprentices start early, often around 15, spending three or four days a week in training and industry courses paid for by employers. They learn about the entire industry, not just how to do a specific job, and perform real work for the company, earning about $500 to $1,500 a month in U.S. dollars.

There’s no reason an apprenticeship model couldn’t work in almost any industry or occupation. If students start opting out of traditional university programs, they’ll be hungry for options that provide income, training, and a solid career path. Smart companies will start planning now and be ready to snatch up the best and brightest of this next generation.


Work hard. Play Hard. 

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