3 Reasons Apprenticeships Can Address Our Tech Talent Shortage

Written by Ximena Hartsock
Published on Aug. 10, 2022
3 Reasons Apprenticeships Can Address Our Tech Talent Shortage
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The United States is suffering from a talent mismatch. There are 11.3 million open jobs but only half that number of job seekers. In a March 2022 survey, 47 percent of America’s small business owners reported having job openings. However, 93 percent of these employers reported finding few or no qualified applicants for these open positions. Meanwhile, an estimated 53 million Americans—about 44 percent of the workforce — are stuck in low-wage jobs with median annual earnings of only $18,000.

Despite our world-famous universities and companies, we struggle to produce workers qualified for the most in-demand roles. As Shafee Ahmed recently discussed in Built In, part of the problem is an education system that overemphasizes attendance at a four-year college. Ahmed, who prefers learning experientially, skipped college and landed a lucrative software engineering job by apprenticing with a tech company. 

Talent-starved fields like technology could be a great fit for the apprenticeship model. For too long, the ancient practice of apprenticeships, in which a novice learns a profession by working under an expert, has been relegated to the skilled trades. Tech companies could pay and teach young people to do the jobs they cannot fill. They could also upskill those millions of workers stuck in low-wage roles. If apprenticeships are to help address America’s talent crisis, we must challenge widespread myths about college and the training of a modern workforce.


Our Narrative About College Needs to Change

In the U.S., young people are taught to look down upon people without college degrees. “College dropout” is an insult. In reality, college enrollment is declining, largely because the average return on investment is an underwhelming 14 percent

Moreover, college is among the most exclusionary institutions in the U.S. For those 53 million Americans making a median wage of $10.22 per hour (as of 2019), a year of public college is prohibitive with average in-state tuition and fees of $10,388. How does one pay rent, support a family, and afford college without accumulating massive debt?  

In comparison, the average starting wage for an apprentice is $15.00 per hour, and the average salary for a worker who completes an apprenticeship is $60,000. Just being an apprentice could increase a low-wage worker’s pay by 50 percent, while completing it could more than triple their income.

We can cherish universities while acknowledging their limitations. Universities are ideal for training people who want to immerse themselves in an academic subject through reading, writing, discussion, and independent research. Apprenticeships, however, are better suited to those who learn by doing and want the most direct path to employability and income. Neither option is better or worse; someone who chooses to attend college at age 18 might advance their career through an apprenticeship 20 years later. Who we are and where we are in life should shape this decision, not social pressure.  


3 Reasons Apprenticeships Can Address Our Tech Talent Shortage

If our society can change its judgmental stance on college, the next step is to win over employers who’ve never considered apprenticeships as a solution to their talent shortages. In my experience, companies fear that they’ll lose their investment in apprentices to competitors who poach them. They also worry that apprenticeships will attract feckless interns or be undervalued in tech because of their association with manual trades. Let’s address each of those concerns. 

3 Reasons Apprenticeships Can Address Our Tech Talent Shortage

  1. Tech apprenticeships have high ROI for employers as well as apprentices.
  2. Apprenticeships are not internships. There are legal requirements to produce skilled workers.
  3. Many tech roles are well-suited to a skills-based pedagogical model.


1. Tech Apprenticeships Have High ROI

Employers overestimate the costs of apprenticeships and underestimate the ROI. By one calculation, the average ROI for an employer is $1.47 for every $1 invested in apprenticeships. A major reason is loyalty. Over 70 percent of 2016 college graduates planned on leaving their job within the first three years, while registered apprenticeships (those that meet Department of Labor standards) have demonstrated a three-year retention rate of 89 percent.


2. Apprenticeships Are Not Internships

The Department of Labor established a registered apprenticeship system in 1937 to ensure that apprenticeships produce employable workers. Internships, on the other hand, can be highly instructive or completely wasteful depending on who runs them. And they’re often unpaid, which excludes interns without financial backing. Internships are for dabbling in an industry; apprenticeships are for training its most in-demand workers.


3. Many Tech Roles Are Well-suited to Hands-on Teaching

Today, the bulk of apprenticeships are in skilled trades such as plumbing, carpentry, and welding. Like skilled tradespeople, many tech employees do not necessarily benefit from a college education. Roles in quality assurance, customer success, sales, web development, and helpdesk services can be learned in months. Plus, apprenticeships can relieve the tech industry’s dependence on outsourcing — a cybersecurity and intellectual property risk — and the H-1B visa system, which is massively flawed and in need of reform.

Companies unable to find talent they need face diminished growth, if not a threat to their existence. In the short term, apprenticeships can begin to address this talent crisis, with or without changes in the college system. Longer term, apprenticeships could heal the economic inequality, class immobility, and wage stagnation fueling civic dysfunction in America. It’s time for Americans to learn on the job.

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