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Starting an Apprenticeship Program

Grainger Editorial Staff • Leanne Coffman

If you've noticed that skilled manufacturing positions are getting harder to fill—it's not just you. Economists have also noted a widening gap in skills, especially as highly trained and established workers retire and must be replaced with new employees.

For small businesses, this is an especially pressing problem. In small and efficient operations, workers tend to build deep expertise about their particular duties, but this expertise is hard to pass on and hard to replace as retirement looms.

According to a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study, 55 million job openings will occur in the economy through 2020, with 31 million of those due to the retirement of highly skilled baby boomers, and the remainder associated with new job openings resulting from company growth.

In response, many small businesses are turning to apprenticeships to find skilled workers. Apprenticeship is a time-tested solution to staffing dilemmas. Through an apprenticeship program, companies can find the skilled workers they need and benefit from novel ideas and innovation of apprentices, who bring a fresh perspective, as well as high productivity and loyalty. The program is equally advantageous to apprentices. Through apprenticeship programs, workers learn skills that are in high demand and begin careers with a living wage.

Apprenticeship can be especially beneficial for small businesses because it means they don't have to develop training programs on their own. Instead, they have the opportunity to collaborate with community colleges or other providers of technical education, which helps ensure that the training is effective and allows the apprentices to bring cutting-edge ideas into the workplace.

Best of all, there are federal, state and local agencies that help subsidize the cost of registered apprenticeship programs—so everybody wins.

How is an apprenticeship different than internship?

An apprenticeship provides a focused and proven worker who may be hired directly once the program is completed. Apprentices receive specific hands-on training from the employer, as well as classroom instruction from a partner organization—all while receiving wages to learn on the job. On the other hand, internships generally offer less specific work or industry experience, which may be unpaid or provide a small stipend.

Commitment level is another difference. Apprenticeships are typically long-term, with many lasting one to several years, unlike internships, which are usually brief and limited to a semester or summer. Registered apprenticeships provide national credentials (and often college credit) when the apprentice successfully completes the program. This makes apprenticeships highly competitive and allows employers to recruit qualified candidates for the program, as well as retain skilled workers.

How does my business start an apprenticeship program?

  1. Evaluate: Assess the challenges associated with staffing and retention in their organization. Apprenticeship may significantly benefit companies that have poor retention rates and difficulty attracting skilled workers. Apprenticeship can also be a way to bring on more diverse and innovative talent. Think about your current and future staffing needs to ensure full participation and to consider all possible placement options.
  2. Learn: Get additional information about apprenticeship partners in the community. One great advantage of apprenticeship is that employers aren’t starting this alone. Ample guidance exists on a local, state and federal level. Registered partners may include community colleges, economic development organizations, and industry organizations.
  3. Register and develop: Once you find a partnership program and register with it, the partner organization will help you create the fundamental components of the apprenticeship for on-the-job training.

The five elements of Department of Labor registered apprenticeship programs

The US Department of Labor has stringent standards for registered apprenticeship programs. This helps ensure that the programs will successfully produce highly skilled workers who are prepared to compete in the global economy. A Department of Labor registered apprenticeship program has five elements:

  • a) Direct business involvement, with the employer actively implementing the apprenticeship
  • b) On-the-job training with an employer mentor
  • c) Related instruction that supplements on-the-job training
  • d) Rewards in the form of progressive wages as skills increase
  • e) Completion resulting in a national credential

Each of the above areas is reviewed and developed by the partners involved in the apprenticeship program. Sponsors, who oversee the operation of the program, are provided for each registered apprenticeship.

Employers have the benefit of tailoring the program to the specific skill or job requirements of the organization, as well as customizing training and duration of the program. State apprenticeship representatives can guide employers on developing the program. The related instruction component consists of job-specific proficiencies, which can be provided in various delivery methods, including online or in the classroom at a technical school or community college. Education partners may confer with the company to create the curriculum.

Several funding options are available for companies participating in registered apprenticeship, including state, federal and local programs. Funding for apprentices may also be available through the GI Bill for Veterans, as well as Pell Grants or scholarship funds. These can be applied toward instruction, as well as leveraged for other portions of the program.

While many apprenticeships focus on new talent, the programs can also be applied to current or incumbent employees as means to improve or build upon existing labor skills.

Interested in more information for your company? The Department of Labor maintains web-based resources, including a toolkit to get started, and a directory of state services available at

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.


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