The Return of the Apprentice

With Germany’s program as a model, apprenticeships are gaining favor from firms no longer demanding BAs or MBAs.



They date back to the Middle Ages and started in the United States after World War I. Germany’s program remains the model for them, with half of the nation’s high school graduates becoming them. And now, experts say, apprenticeships could well become the 21st-century way to train workers who want to bypass colleges and MBA programs.

Historically used to achieve accreditation among craftsmen and artisans, apprenticeships are gaining favor everywhere from Australia to the US, as companies look to bridge the digital talent gap with workers specially trained in engineering, software, and other STEM-related fields.

Though still a small class of hires, the US government expects apprenticeships to increase to 750,000 this year—a 50% jump from 500,000 in 2016.

“In 2018, we saw major corporations, many of which are considered in the talent avant-garde, eliminate the need for undergraduate degrees as an employment requirement,” says John Petzold, head of Korn Ferry’s CXO Optimization practice. “We’ve also seen similar leniency regarding the need for MBA credentials in senior leadership roles, which used to be table stakes.”

To some degree, the increasingly burdensome financial cost of college has been driving this. So has the historically low unemployment market, which gives workers the ability to find work without tracking the usual higher-education route. But experts say the tech age’s mounting demand for properly skilled workers is the biggest driver for the corporate attitude-change toward apprentice-trained workers. With the pace still growing, organizations need specialists in coding, programming, and robotics, to name a few technical areas. They also need experts with digital skills in sales, marketing, and logistics.

“Many organizations feel that on-the-job training will equip their workers better than universities can with the required skills,” says Peter Cave-Gibbs, senior client partner with Korn Ferry.

As a result, more organizations are launching or partnering with others on apprenticeships programs as a means to recruit and train new talent and reskill existing talent. Germany’s system has long been praised highly, and as part of trade talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel even offered to support more apprenticeship slots in the US with German companies. Although down from its peak, more than 50% of high school graduates in Germany became apprentices in 2016, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story.

Not everyone is sold on the idea of apprenticeships, however. Laws governing the accreditation of apprenticeship programs vary around the world, which impacts where licenses are accepted, for instance. Organizations often bear the cost of building out programs. And, for most organizations, a college degree is still viewed as more attractive.

Perception is slowly changing, however. Many organizations recognize the talent challenges ahead and are actively pursuing alternative ways to recruit and train workers. They also recognize the intense battle they will face from next and existing competitors for that talent. To be sure, some organizations are going beyond apprenticeships already. Cave-Gibbs says that in the United Kingdom, professional service firms and others have been recruiting straight from high school.