Are apprenticeships the new on-ramp to middle-class jobs?

The earn-and-learn model could spread, but the Trump administration has done too little to facilitate its growth.
by Caroline Preston, The Hechinger Report /  / Updated 

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Editor’s note: This story is the fifth in the Map to the Middle Class series from The Hechinger Report, examining how schools can prepare students for the good middle-class jobs of the future. The piece has been jointly published by NBCNews.com and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — The program had to be a scam. Why would anyone, she wondered, pay her to go to college?

Even after Sarat Atobajeun found information about the program on Harper College’s website, she remained skeptical. A job with a $30,000 salary, plus college tuition and even complimentary textbooks? She called the community college to verify. The Harper receptionist told her it was true: A Swiss-based insurance business with its U.S. headquarters down the street — housed in a behemoth glass building she’d often driven by and puzzled over — had exported its apprenticeship program to the United States.

Image: Apprenticeships
Sarat Atobajeun started as an apprentice with Zurich Insurance last August. She said she appreciates the stability of the job and the diversity of the tasks she's learning.

The company was seeking 12 candidates to work three days a week in entry-level roles and attend classes the other two days. At the end of two years, the candidates would receive an associate degree in business administration, on the company’s dime. The only prerequisites were a high school diploma and a willingness to learn.

That was spring 2017. In August that year, Atobajeun, 25, started as an apprentice at Zurich Insurance, making her a foot soldier in a bipartisan push to plow new paths to middle-class jobs.

The traditional high school-to-college-to-employment route has hit a number of potholes recently, among them cripplingly high college tuition and growing concern that higher education is disconnected from emerging work opportunities. Although demand for jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees is rising at twice the rate of those requiring only high school diplomas, there’s a growing sense among some companies, including Zurich, that baccalaureates aren’t necessarily the best way for students to gather meaningful job skills and experience.

“It’s a very expensive and inefficient proxy,” said Matthew Sigelman, chief executive of Burning Glass Technologies, which analyzes labor market trends. “It means employers pay more for talent and take longer to fill jobs. If we can develop channels that provide employers with the talent they need, with the right training to get the job done in ways that are more efficient, that’s a win for both sides.”

Last year, the company worked with the Harvard Business School to issue a report concluding that 3.2 million jobs, including many white-collar positions such as graphic designer, human resource specialist and paralegal, could be filled by apprentices. That’s an eight-fold increase over the number today. But whether apprenticeships can take hold in a big way, workforce and education experts say, depends on several factors: government investment, greater interest from companies and high-quality programs that give workers portable skills that benefit them, not just their employers.

While apprenticeships — which combine paid work with on-the-job and classroom training — are widespread in Europe, in the United States they’ve typically been limited to blue-collar trades. But in the past three years homegrown apprenticeships have received a boost: The Obama administration and Congress allocated some $265 million to expand the training programs. Zurich staff worked with Department of Labor and Harper College officials on a new insurance apprenticeship template, which other companies, including Aon and Hartford Mutual Insurance, have used to create similar programs.

President Donald Trump has talked about expanding apprenticeships and set up a Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion last fall. But new money has been slow to materialize. The task force, which includes some relative novices to the topic, including the actor who played Cliff on “Cheers,” has yet to issue any recommendations.

Meanwhile, some workforce experts find Trump’s ideas on apprenticeships worrisome. In a June executive order, the president called for the creation of fast-tracked “industry-recognized” apprenticeships to reduce regulations and paperwork on companies seeking to roll out the earn-and-learn model. The concern among some is that this parallel push for industry-recognized apprenticeships could be a stealth means of watering down standards for apprenticeships, making it easier for businesses to avoid wage gains and other requirements of the apprenticeship model.

“We’ve gotten some signals that some of those standards might be loosened under this new model,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America, a left-leaning think tank. The current system “does need to be modernized and made more flexible and updated for certain industries,” she said, “but creating a parallel system is not something I think necessarily seems like the best approach to the problem.”

The Department of Labor did not respond to requests for comment.

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Zurich’s apprenticeship program is highly structured. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Atobajeun and the 22 other members of the company’s two apprentice classes pass through the Zurich lobby in Schaumburg by 8 a.m. and make their way to their assignments in claims, underwriting or finance. They each have a mentor, a prescribed training plan, an hour a day free for homework and plenty of opportunities to ask questions. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they study at Harper, in Palatine, Ill., a 10-minute drive away.

“Programs like this create an opportunity to understand what path is right for you,” said Atobajeun, who recently rotated to finance after finishing her first four months in underwriting. “That’s probably what school doesn’t have that this place teaches you.”

While white-collar apprenticeships like this one are often sold as on-ramps for people who’ve never been to college, that’s not always the case at Zurich. Roughly two-thirds of the apprentices entered the program with a high school diploma or its equivalent, according to a spokesperson for the company, while 27 percent held a bachelor’s and 8 percent had a master’s. For some, the program is as much about getting a foot in the door or switching careers as it is earning a degree.

A native of Nigeria, Atobajeun enrolled at Harper to study nursing after graduating from a high school nearby. After two years there, she matriculated at Rockford University, about an hour’s drive away. But her schedule was grueling. All through college, Atobajeun worked overnights as a home health aide, earning $9 to $12 an hour. She studied at night, too, then attended classes during the day, catching sleep when she could.

She made the schedule work for a time, but the juggling act became more complicated after the birth of her son. The final straw was when she arrived at work one evening to discover that her patient had died. “You form a relationship with patients and their families,” she said. After learning of the Zurich apprenticeship from her brother, who works at a nearby call center, she left the health care field and hasn’t looked back.

A fellow apprentice Colton Wright, 24, already holds a bachelor’s degree in business. He applied to Zurich after searching for marketing jobs and getting stuck in a Catch-22 familiar to many job seekers. Most positions required relevant experience, yet it was impossible to acquire that experience without a job. Plus, the positions he investigated looked unstable, as if these small companies might blink out of existence at any moment. Zurich, with nearly 85 offices throughout the United States, seemed like a smart long-term bet.

“I knew what I wanted in a company and that’s why I ended up here,” Wright said. Like all apprentices, he is required to work an additional third year at Zurich. After that, he said he hopes to become a claims handler, which pays a median salary of nearly $64,000 a year.

The attrition rate at Zurich has been relatively high, with seven of 48 apprentices dropping out before completing their two years. Jennifer Schneider, a spokeswoman for Zurich, said the company isn’t concerned about those numbers. Some people have left voluntarily to pursue an education elsewhere, she said. With the insurance industry facing a tsunami of retirements that could free up some 400,000 jobs, Zurich and companies like it have plenty of incentive to find new ways of recruiting workers. But if businesses burn through apprentices and the programs don’t end up benefiting employers, it’s easy to imagine how some apprenticeships could disappear.

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Image: Apprenticeships
Apprentices study for an associate degree in business at Harper College, which is working with community colleges nationwide to help them develop apprenticeship curricula.

The apprenticeship program reflects a broader shift toward occupational training at Harper College and institutions like it. Kenneth Ender, the college’s president, said that two-year — and even many four-year — liberal arts degrees no longer hold currency in the labor market unless they’re paired with industry-specific skills.

While some decry this departure from academic education, Ender said students are still being equipped with the solid foundation in math and English that will allow them “to continue to learn the rest of their lives.”

“The slow, four-year baccalaureate is a privileged way of getting an education,” he said. “Some will be able to do it; most won’t.”

Harper has started seven different apprenticeship programs since 2015, and it has two more in the works, in cybersecurity and IT. Models differ slightly: The cybersecurity apprenticeship offers a certificate, not an associate degree, for example. All the companies working with Harper pick up the costs of school — about $15,000 per student for white-collar apprenticeships — but that’s not a requirement of the model. Apprentices participating in a program run by the professional services giant Accenture, for example, must pay for their own courses, officials with the company said.

Rebecca Lake, Harper’s dean of workforce and development, said she doesn’t tailor the programs narrowly to fit the whims of any particular employer. “I don’t sell it that way,” she said. “It’s an associate degree in business.”

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Image: Apprenticeships
Apprentice Tommy Dowd is studying for an associate degree in business administration at Harper College while working three days a week at Zurich.

One afternoon this year, Wright and his fellow apprentice Tommy Dowd sat in Harper’s no-frills cafeteria discussing the three-hour insurance class from which they’d just been sprung. The course material was dense, Dowd said, but sometimes “something will click. This is what I’m doing right now [at work] and my class is talking about it.”

Dowd, 21, who is working toward his first degree, isn’t sure exactly what he wants do after the apprenticeship. But, he said, he likes the practical nature of his coursework and appreciates the chance to gain concrete business skills. Atobajeun, meanwhile, said she has a plan — she wants to transition into human resources at Zurich once the apprenticeship ends.

She has already identified a future mentor in human resources: the manager who first interviewed her for the apprenticeship. When he called Atobajeun to offer her the position, he gently ribbed her for accidentally cursing during the second day of interviews. (She’d been mortified.) The HR manager told her she had impressed him and would receive an offer, but he issued a good-natured warning: “Don’t embarrass me.”

So far, so good. Atobajeun’s job performance has been anything but embarrassing. Last semester, for the first time in her academic career, she earned a 4.0.

CORRECTION (April 20, 2018, 12:56 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the cost to companies of Harper College apprenticeships. It is $15,000 total, not annually.

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