College & Workforce Readiness

Apprenticeships Key to Solving Workforce Skills Gap, CEOs Say

By Catherine Gewertz — June 07, 2017 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Top leaders in business and government on Wednesday called for an intense focus on developing apprenticeship programs and other pathways that can connect young people to good jobs and help meet the labor market’s need for skilled workers.

In an event sponsored by the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Secretary of Labor and an aide to President Donald J. Trump gathered with the CEOs of three big corporations and two U.S. senators to call attention to companies’ persistent difficulty finding employees with the sets of skills they require.

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta offered a glimpse into the administration’s approach to the skills gap, saying that too many pipelines de-emphasize experiential learning. Few do what medical school does, he said: require a blend of classroom and on-the-job learning.

“Experiential learning is applied in some areas, but not in others,” Acosta said. “Apprenticeships, broadly conceived, are the perfect model ... an answer” to the gap “between workforce demand and workforce supply.” Acosta added that part of his role is to “address the supply side, the educational institutions.”

Reed Cordish, a former Baltimore developer who joined the Trump administration to use business concepts to reshape government, said Trump will announce an initiative with the Department of Labor next week that’s aimed at expanding apprenticeship programs and providing student aid for such programs.

President Trump “wants to amplify what’s working” and put “a tremendous amount of resources” behind programs that bring education and business together to shape local curricula around the needs of the labor market, Cordish said.

A survey released by the Business Roundtable on Wednesday highlights the ongoing frustration that corporate leaders have had trying to find workers to fill their job openings. A companion report details the skill-development programs that big companies are running to create the workforce they need.

The survey is small; it reached only 177 companies, and only half of those responded. But it taps the thinking of an influential set of corporate leaders.

In a sign of their need, the responding companies alone reported that they are spending a combined $4.5 billion annually on programs to build their employees’ skills, and said they expect to spend more in the next two years. Ninety-six percent said they already operate internships to try to address the skills gap; more than half said they are working with the education sector to develop classroom curricula, or to offer mentorships or apprenticeships.

Ninety-five percent of the companies that responded to the survey said finding the talent they need is problematic. They have difficulty in a range of areas. They report that skills related to STEM occupations are in short supply—cybersecurity and data analytics were two specific shortages mentioned—but so are skills such as leadership, communication, and applying knowledge to real-world situations. More than 80 percent of the companies also reported difficulty recruiting women and members of racial or ethnic minorities into science-related fields.

Many of the survey results were unsurprising, because business leaders are acutely aware of their difficulties in recruiting talent matched to their needs, said Wes Bush, the CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp. But he said the survey showed “the magnitude of the problem,” particularly in the challenges of hiring a diverse workforce in some occupational fields.

Business and government leaders who joined Cordish and Acosta for the discussion were universal in their support for apprenticeship programs as an important pipeline to jobs. Ginni Rometty, the president and CEO of IBM Corp., held up Germany’s longtime apprenticeship system as a model, although it’s been criticized by some American educators who are wary of the way it tracks young students into careers at a young age.

IBM founded the P-TECH network of schools, which allow students to finish high school with associate degrees and inside tracks to jobs at IBM. And IBM also announced Wednesday it is expanding its partnerships with community colleges to create programs that prepare students for technology jobs Rometty described as “new collar"—instead of blue- or white-collar.

To embrace the apprenticeship model fully, Rometty said, requires “getting over the paradigm” that the pathway to good jobs necessarily includes a four-year college degree.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said that one of his goals in working to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act is to allow “laboratories of innovation” for such programs in the states to flourish without being “constrained” by the U.S. Department of Education.

In a lighthearted display of bipartisanship, Scott, a Republican, and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democrat, shook hands while chuckles rippled through the audience, saying they agreed that workforce issues have to be high on Congress’ radar this session. Both men serve on the Senate’s education committee.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, made an appearance at the event at the request of the Business Roundtable, which anticipated questions about the role organized labor might play in creating job pathways for students. Weingarten noted that some unionized school districts have worked hard to transform vocational education programs into rigorous career-tech-ed programs that boost high school graduation and college-enrollment rates. She said her union backs partnerships that create real opportunity for students. “We are ready to do this on steroids,” Weingarten said.

But Sen. Bennet sounded a cautionary note, too. In the rush to provide better preparation for the workplace, he said, policymakers should take care not to sweep away the value of four-year college, especially for low-income and minority students who don’t as often get the opportunity to attend college.

“I’m not sure we want to change that emphasis [on college for all students],” said Bennet, the former superintendent of schools in Denver. “There’s a lot of cheap talk about how not everyone has to go to college, and usually they’re talking about someone else’s kid.”

Sandy Boyd, the chief operating officer of Achieve, which works with states to create rigorous K-12 education systems, attended the discussion and told Education Week afterward that while apprenticeships can play a valuable role in preparing students for work, the importance of good academic preparation should not be overlooked.

“There is no silver bullet here,” she said. “I would caution against any system that doesn’t make sure kids graduate from high school academically prepared for the maximum number of options, for charting their own paths. High school should be about academic and career experiences that keep opening doors, not closing them. I worry about any conversation that seems to be headed in a single direction. This stuff is complicated, and the answers are multifaceted.”

For additional coverage of the Business Roundtable event, see my colleague Michele Molnar’s post at EdWeek’s Market Brief.

For more on programs that prepare students for work, see:

Education Week‘s three-part series, “Career and Technical Education at a Crossroads.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.