How to Start an Apprentice Program

Apprenticeship has been in practice since the time of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians as a way to transfer expertise through generations. That said, modern business and especially technology-focused groups have little experience setting up and running apprentice programs. This will have to change or businesses will find themselves short of skilled employees.  

Baby boomers are starting to retire and the new generations of workforce have different skills, approaches to education, and thoughts on entering the workforce than previous generations. As potential employees leave the primary or secondary education systems, they find they have a broad knowledge base but typically little specific skill that hiring managers are looking for. One approach to making this less of a challenge for potential employees and for the hiring manager is to set up an apprentice program.

With an apprentice program, the hiring manager or recruiting team searches for people with the interest and potential to do a job rather than specific experience with a specific job role. The company brings the recruit in at a lower rate and with lower expectation on how quickly the person can be a contributing member of the team. The recruit is provided a training program specific to the role in the company and is paired with a mentor who is currently in the specific role in order to accelerate time to functional skill. The recruit is also paired with a mentor that acts as a life coach, helping the recruit to grow the interpersonal and life skills to be a good fit to the company culture. As the recruits’ skills grow, their salary and value to the company grows, as does their loyalty to the company.

Apprentice programs can be started and operated in many ways. Some of the steps to consider include:

  • Identify roles. While this seems obvious, determine what job roles and levels would limit company exposure as the recruit makes mistakes while learning. The roles should have very specific and defined steps on how to accomplish the tasks of the role. For instance, if you are looking for someone who can write software that integrates solutions to existing services, you may write a very narrow job role for a person that can write software that interfaces with a single integration point. If the role has a strategic aspect and tactical aspect, start the recruit with the tactical portions of the role and have them shadow others that are performing the strategic tasks.
  • Build specific training. If you are looking for programmers who can build integration apps, you should create specific training content for each integration point in your environment. As you create training, it needs to provide the relevant information but does not need to be ready-for-resale quality. Additionally, since the recruit will have a mentor, they can ask the mentor for clarification on the areas they do not quite understand.
  • One learning goal per course. Make sure the training is compartmentalized. That is, consider making each training piece support one learning goal. For instance, in our integration example you may have a piece of training on authenticating with the integration point. Another on communications protocols, and another on supported languages. Ideally, the training will be available as asynchronous self-paced training.
  • Provide constant feedback. Setting up short weekly meetings to discuss accomplishments and areas to focus on is critical. Setting short goals and providing a three-month roadmap and reviewing progress is also critical. The short term goals provide specific next steps, the ability to course correct quickly, and to point out areas to focus on. As you provide feedback, try to start with a review of the person’s progress since joining, and then focus on a positive step from the past week and a goal for the following week.
  • Provide mentor training. The training does not need to be in depth and can be delivered in a lunch-and-learn or brown bag environment, or can be a half-day and delivered by the human resources group or the training group. The training should cover the steps to show, observe, and provide feedback to the recruit as well as initial assessment and exit criteria for validating the recruit has mastered the skill to the expected level.
  • Life and job skills. While you can take the stance that teaching just the skills for the job is your only responsibility, if you are investing in a person and expect longer term value, teaching basic life skills will make for a better employee. With life skills you are helping the new employee by setting the expectation for work ethic and giving basic skills so when they come to work they are focused on work. The alternative is to skip helping them grow those skills and the employee may end up spending their work time fretting about their personal life.

The US government is sponsoring many initiatives to grow the number of apprentice programs in the United States. Recent statistics show there are approximately 410,000 registered apprenticeships in the United States while there are 19 million students in 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities. On a per capita basis that is one sixth as many people in apprenticeship programs as Great Britain and one sixteenth that of Germany.

There is clearly value in adopting apprenticeship programs and offering alternative approaches to engaging and growing potential employees.         

Andy Ruth 
SEI Mentor
Apprenticeship Program