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The Secret Is Out: The Potential for Apprenticeship Programming at Community Colleges

The EvoLLLution | The Secret Is Out: The Potential for Apprenticeship Programming at Community Colleges
A strong labor market, with low unemployment, predictably brings a drop in community college enrollments. But colleges can guard against it with apprenticeship programming.

Apprenticeship programming offers students a great advantage in the job market, as it is built to fit the exact hiring needs of employers. For community colleges, however, it creates opportunities to support the community, tighten relationships with employers and industry, and open up new revenue streams in a challenging environment. In this interview Rebecca Lake reflects on the value of Registered Apprenticeship (RA) offerings and shares her insights on what it takes to build and scale successful apprenticeship programs.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why should two-year colleges to have robust apprenticeship offerings?

Rebecca Lake (RL): We as community colleges have three main duties to fulfill.

First of all, we exist to serve our community, hence the name community colleges. In order to do so we need to attract and retain students—either non-credit, credit or lifelong learners. This brings us to our second duty, which is to create an educational environment that brings learners in the door. That focus on access helps us meet our mission and change lives. Frankly, apprenticeship plays a critical role in the execution of this aspect of our mission. Thirdly, we have a responsibility to serve companies and employers that operate in our community. We need to make sure we stay accountable to them and responsive to their needs, another area where apprenticeships make an impact.

There’s another reason why strong RA programs are valuable, which is that they support revenue generation efforts for the college. By creating new and in-demand pathways to learning opportunities and credentials, and by building these offerings in a way that support learner retention, these offerings serve as a valuable additional revenue stream at a time when colleges are on the look-out for new opportunities to generate income.

Evo: How can workforce and apprenticeship programs help colleges in this economy, when the labor market is extremely strong and finding work is easier than it is in a down-turn?

RL: This is a reality for colleges: When the economy is strong, our enrollments typically decline. The strong economy also impacts employers. They can have trouble filling skills gaps because individuals are likely fully employed. Around our college right now, for example, the unemployment rate is below 3%.

This is where apprenticeship programs become important. We’re creating predictability in our enrollments, and also creating an labor pipeline for employers looking to fill skill gaps.

Our model is to develop RA programs around the associate degree offerings already available at Harper. Rather than building programming entirely from scratch, we leverage existing programs to new access pathways. For example, we took our associate’s degree program in business administration and used it to build an RA for insurance, for banking and finance, and for sales and marketing. In total we offer eight RA programs and seven of them are associate in applied science (AAS) degrees built off of the degrees we already have.

Evo: How do you convince employers that apprenticeship programs aren’t just exclusively for the technical fields, but insurance and finance as well?

RL: There are traditional apprenticeship programs that are meant for more technical jobs such as industrial maintenance technicians, CNC precision machining, electricians, plumbers and drywallers. Then we have non-traditional programs that lead to more white-collar careers. We continuously market this apprenticeship diversity.  For all employers, we encourage them to view hiring differently and more as the development of a longer term talent pipeline strategy. What often happens is that companies who recruit maintenance mechanics through our programs will then come back seeking someone who specializes in finance or administrative work. We use all kinds of marketing techniques—from radio to direct mail and even hire part-time sales consultants—to reach out and talk to companies about our RA offerings and the benefits apprenticeships bring to the workplace.

Evo: What roadblocks stand in the way of the effective development and delivery of apprenticeship program offerings?

RL:Surprisingly, there are really no roadblocks. In our case, we are lucky to have faculty willing to work with us and have never experienced any issues with using our current curriculum for the apprenticeship program. When we begin to write a registered apprenticeship program, we make sure to get together with employers who are interested in hiring apprentices for a specific position and we get some valuable feedback on our curriculum, learning objectives and more.

What has been difficult in the past, and has dramatically improved  since the Obama Administration, is that community colleges now have greater exposure. Community colleges have always felt like they were the stepchild of the university, but our purpose has always been around the workforce. People come to us to change careers or learn a new career that requires an associate’s degree or a certificate. The end product is success in the workforce and to improve their quality of life.

Before 2015, most community colleges never considered offering apprenticeship programs. It is a recent phenomenon. But now colleges are beginning to investigate how and in what ways to incorporate apprenticeships. In the case of employers, colleges need to thoroughly educate them on how we can help solve their hiring problems through apprenticeships.

Evo:  If you were to give advice to another dean or another VP of workforce development who is trying to either build from the ground up, or scale an existing apprenticeship program, what do they need to understand about running a successful apprenticeship program?

RL: First, they would need to make sure that they have faculty willing to work with them, and existing programs that could be leveraged. But most importantly, I would tell those deans or VPs of workforce, that the process always has to start with the employer. Every single registered apprenticeship program we have started with employers. For instance, the banking program started with the Illinois Bankers Association, who approached us because their members were having trouble filling their teller and loan officer positions. We immediately knew this could fit under the associate’s degree in business but instead of having the four concentration courses in insurance, theirs would focus on banking and finance. The faculty worked with us to develop the four financial courses with feedback from the banks.  But it all started with the employer’s request.

Evo:  Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to build a successful, and a creative apprenticeship program?

RK:It is up to the college to decide whether or not to go ahead with an apprenticeship program. For this initiative to be successful, it needs to be in the college’s strategic or operational plan.  They can be designed in many different ways. For example, we have designed our programs so that the companies pay 100% of the apprentice’s education. This way before they start college, they are hired into their apprenticeship position by a company, receive a salary and benefits, and the company pays for their education.

We have an academic coach who works with every single apprentice and we always keep the companies informed as to the apprentice’s academic status. This constant and consistent use of the intrusive academic coach has made a huge difference in retention of apprentices. Of the 154 apprentices we have served since 2015, there is an retention rate of 90% for all the apprenticeship programs.

There is no doubt that apprenticeship programs change lives and are winning college and employer initiatives. Apprenticeships are a win for employers, filling their hard-to-fill positions; a win for apprentices, who learn a career and earn a salary; and a win  for community colleges, by meeting their mission and increasing their completion and retention rates.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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