The Rise of the Apprentice

Facing talent shortages across many roles, firms are trying creative ways to train up workers who don’t have college degrees. The pros and cons.

It’s sounds like a talent recruiter’s dream, hire someone with no higher education who can eventually handle some of the firm’s critical tech needs.

That’s what several companies are hoping, as they embark on a growing number of apprenticeships similar programs to fill talent shortages, particularly in tech-related roles. According to one recent news accounting, engineering firm Bosch has turned to a 12-month tech program, training applicants to write code that supports emerging technologies such as driver assistance and autonomous vehicles. Meanwhile, in New York, some tech firms are sending their own employees into City University of New York classrooms to teach data analytics, data science and cybersecurity, in part to identify and train future workers.

To some degree, the increasingly cost of college has been driving this. So has the historically low unemployment market. 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.

“If you stick with it here there can be big benefits,”  says Jacob Zabkowicz, vice president and general manager of Korn Ferry’s Global Recruitment Process Outsourcing business. “Building your own talent pool lets you grow those purple squirrels and green elephants, but it’s really challenging,”

To be sure, finding talent has been a major concern for a few years as the pain from the Great Recession has faded. Indeed, an earlier Korn Ferry study said that by 2030, there will be a global human talent shortage of more than 85 million people. There is, however, a surplus of low-skilled people in most parts of the world. These are people without a college degree who’ve never worked or, increasingly, had jobs that were replaced by technology and automation. Experts say firms that can successfully find and train people within this group to do more tech-intensive work gain a competitive advantage.

But for an apprenticeship program to work, experts say, they need more than just willing apprentices. “It could be a strategy at HR, but if it’s not bought in at management level it’s not going to work,” says Zabkowicz. It can’t just be a one-year program either; a company can only effectively evaluate the program after 3-5 years, he says.

At the same time, companies need to change how they evaluate the employees the apprentices are assigned to. Having to train an apprentice will almost certainly cause a drop in a worker’s own productivity, says Signe Spencer, a senior consultant with the Korn Ferry Institute. “Those mentors need to be recognized and rewarded not on their own productivity alone but on the success and growth of the apprentice,” she says.

Company leaders also have to realize that some of the apprentices may just not be able to cut it. Even the ones that do get it may take longer than what some managers expect, Spencer says.