apprenticeship programs

5 lessons on starting successful apprenticeship programs


As the demands of careers evolve, the way students prepare for these jobs must change too.

The future jobs today’s students will hold will require new skills. According to the World Economic Forum, knowledge sets such as problem solving, creativity, and cognitive flexibility are growing in importance in all industries. At the same time, technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics are automating repetitive tasks. Colleges and universities are working to find new ways to keep up with these shifts and prepare students for careers that are specialized and dynamic.

One option receiving increased attention has been the use of apprenticeship programs, with their trademark mix of classroom learning and on-the-job training, as a new workforce development model. But these programs have many moving parts and require an investment of resources from higher education, leaving college and university leaders wondering how to make apprenticeships work. The answer lies in finding the best ways to collaborate with employer partners.

Why apprenticeships matter

In 2016, Festo Didactic, Sinclair Community College, and other partners collaborated on an apprenticeship program in Mason, Ohio. The goals were three-fold:

  • to help a new generation of manufacturing workers level-up their skills for a manufacturing industry that was rapidly changing because of Industry 4.0
  • to minimize the impact of the skills gap in the local advanced manufacturing market
  • to give students a way to earn an income while they attend school and thus reduce their need to incur student loan debt.

We adapted the model that has been used in Germany for centuries. From my years growing up and working in the country, I knew that apprenticeships can effectively deliver the theoretical learning and on-the-job training future employees need. At the same time, these types of programs introduce students to the knowledge and rhythms of the manufacturing industry, resulting in significant advantages for employers.

(Next page: The keys to launching an effective apprenticeship program)

The keys to effective apprenticeship programs

The Mason apprenticeship program has been successful because of the relationships created between the academic leaders at Sinclair and the employer partners. Through constant communication, collaboration, and a shared investment in the future of the apprentices, we have created a career ramp for 31 young people to earn while they learn and get a jump start on careers in manufacturing. The key insights we have learned so far are below. While these lessons are from manufacturing, higher ed leaders can apply them to nearly every industry to make it easier to implement apprenticeships at their campus.

  1. Find the right partner. Our group of dedicated partners is the driving force behind this program. We are all invested in the success of the individual apprentices as well as the program as a whole. That’s not to say that we all have the exact same goal; rather, the goals of the instructors and deans at Sinclair are markedly different than those of the employer partners. But early in the program, we had candid conversations about these goals and aligned on a few mutually beneficial ones that became the program’s tenets.

    Having the right people from these partners also helped immensely. These included instructors and institutional leadership from Sinclair as well as apprenticeship mentors and managers and human resources representatives from the various employer partners.

  2. Collaborate on the curriculum. As an educational and employer partner, Festo Didactic knows it’s best to let deans and instructors do what they do best: identify and implement an effective educational approach to ensure programs uphold their academic integrity. However, we also collaborated with our employer partners to provide perspective on the most in-demand skills needed for today’s careers. Robotics, computer programming, industrial design thinking, and mechatronics, among other skills, are all part of the apprentices’ curricula.
  3. Create an employer consortium. There is a persistent myth that apprenticeships must be developed one employer partner at a time, yet that’s rarely feasible for the college or the employer. Our solution was to form an employer consortium that includes Festo, Art Metal Group, Clippard Instruments, MQ Automation, and Nestlé. The investment costs for employers prevent most from hosting more than a handful of apprentices at one time–let alone enough students to comprise a full class. Establishing an employer consortium and partnering with multiple companies provides greater opportunity for colleges and universities to have substantial cohorts of apprentices.
  4. Establish a sandbox. A unique and successful part of our apprenticeship program is the time apprentices spend at the Festo Learning Center. All apprentices, regardless of the employer they work for, spend one day each week practicing on simulation equipment at the Learning Center. During this day, they receive hands-on learning, applying what they learned in the classroom that week before going to their employer to work on real machines.
  5. Make a splash. While there are more than 500,000 apprentices in the U.S., according to the Department of Labor, such training programs are still a fledgling part of this country’s education system. That’s why promoting an apprenticeship program is important. This is especially true in fields like manufacturing, which may suffer from negative stereotypes about their value as career options.

    Despite the benefits of getting paid and having their tuition covered, some apprentices (and their parents) needed to be convinced of the program’s merits. Talking about the program in the community, making it well known on campus, and celebrating apprentices with “signing day” or “start day” events all help to raise the profile of apprenticeships.

As the demands of careers evolve, the way students prepare for these jobs must change too. Apprenticeships serve as a perfect bridge between classrooms and the workplace, reducing the skills gap and lowering the need for student loans. Growing these programs will require a commitment from educators and employers to collaborate in new and innovative ways. But together we can make a meaningful impact in preparing the next generation for the jobs of tomorrow.

eSchool Media Contributors