Employers are turning to apprenticeship programs to train new hires. : The Indicator from Planet Money Apprenticeships: not just for medieval guilds, but also useful in today's tight labor market! More employers in fields such as healthcare are turning to apprenticeship programs to train new hires for critical roles.

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Jobs Friday: Why apprenticeships could make a comeback

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

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ADRIAN MA, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Adrian Ma.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

I'm Wailin Wong. And it is jobs Friday. The Bureau of Labor Statistics released their latest jobs report today. And U.S. employers added 223,000 jobs in December. The unemployment rate ticked down to 3.5%.

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MA: The economy has wrapped another tight year in the labor market. We've seen people leave jobs for better pay and working conditions, which means some businesses have had to try new strategies to recruit employees.

WONG: One strategy they've tried is training new workers, and specifically through apprenticeships. These are programs where workers earn a paycheck while getting practical, hands-on job training.

MA: Apprenticeships have been around for centuries. And in their modern form in the U.S., they're most common in industries like construction. But they are expanding in other fields that are anticipating major demand for workers in the years ahead - fields like health care.

WONG: Today on the show, we get schooled in how apprenticeship programs work. And we talk to one company that's training new generations of essential health care workers.

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WONG: You might hear apprenticeship and think of, I don't know, some colonial guy learning how to be a silversmith. And actually, Paul Revere was once a silversmith apprentice. That's what the Department of Labor says on its website about apprenticeship programs.

MA: Yeah. And silversmithing isn't really the viable career path it used to be. But the apprenticeship has lived on. And there are all kinds of jobs with apprenticeship programs, like bartenders, web designers, even private detectives.

WONG: These programs can take anywhere from under a year to several years to complete. Some of them are sponsored by unions. Others are run by individual companies. And some of them are called registered apprenticeships, meaning they have a stamp of approval from the federal government or a state agency for meeting certain standards around wages and curriculum. This system of registered apprenticeships has been around since the Great Depression.

MA: And what all apprenticeships have in common is that workers get paid to learn on the job. And these programs are part of something called active labor-market policies.

RACHEL LIPSON: The keyword is - there is active.

MA: Rachel Lipson is co-founder and director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University.

LIPSON: These are policies that aim to activate the labor market. It means, how do we get more people into the labor force and not just into the labor force, but, ideally, into good jobs?

MA: Training programs like apprenticeships provide career paths for people who might not want to or be able to attend a four-year college, but they still want to be able to learn specialized skills and get paid for it.

WONG: Rachel says interest in job training tends to perk up in recessions and fade away when the economy is doing well. But the pandemic years have been an outlier. Rachel says, with the COVID recession, there wasn't the same kind of uptick in people seeking out new job skills. And one of the reasons for that is a tight labor market for low-wage workers.

LIPSON: I think a lot of the training programs have had to really prove their worth. Are you going to be able to create a better opportunity for me in the future, relative to what I might make working at Amazon in a warehouse or in the gig economy, when wages in some of these jobs that don't require a lot of training are going up, and there's a lot of demand?

MA: Advocates of apprenticeships point to long-term career development and earning potential as some of the benefits of these programs. The Department of Labor says the average starting salary for people who complete a registered apprenticeship is $77,000 a year.

WONG: And yet the number of people enrolled in apprenticeship programs is just a tiny slice of the U.S. labor market. It's under 1%. Compare that to rates of around 2% in other countries, like England and Australia. Rachel says one big obstacle in the growth of apprenticeships is that American companies don't want to invest in training workers that could take those skills to a competitor.

LIPSON: In other countries, you'll see that people complete apprenticeships with one employer and may wind up moving to another employer in the same industry. The employers, though, have said, it's worth it to us to have a steady, sustainable pipeline of people entering our fields, and so it's actually not a bad outcome, if someone winds up getting the training with me and then going to another firm and maybe coming back later on.

WONG: But this need for a steady, sustainable pipeline of people - this is what's motivating some American companies to invest in apprenticeship programs. For example, the nursing home and residential care industry lost 400,000 workers during the pandemic. People got sick. They quit. They took other jobs. Or they retired early. Mark Klyczek is the CEO of Virginia Health Services, a company that operates facilities like nursing homes and assisted living centers.

MARK KLYCZEK: The No. 1 issue in senior living at this point in time is workforce. Everything else in health care has recovered. The hospitals have come back. The physician offices have come back. But nursing homes are still down about 300,000 jobs. It's a very big deal.

MA: Mark's industry is in particular need of certified nursing assistants, or CNAs. These are workers who make sure residents get fed, bathed and dressed. They also measure vital signs and get residents to and from their medical appointments. And one person who could tell you all about it is Princess Henderson. She started as a CNA at Virginia Health Services in 2008.

PRINCESS HENDERSON: I did fall in love with working with the elderly. They needed compassionate people who really cared about them, who weren't just there just to do a job. Sometimes they have nobody else left. And just to see you every day makes their day better.

WONG: Back in 2008, Virginia Health Services offered a three-week training course for CNAs. It wasn't quite a full-fledged apprenticeship program at the time. Students had to pay for the class. But Princess wanted to work in health care and saw the program as a way to get her foot in the door. It was one week in the classroom and two weeks on the floor. And Princess remembers a steep learning curve for some of the tasks, like helping residents with their disposable underwear.

HENDERSON: I was a mother, so I'm like, I could put a brief on somebody. It's not going to be a big deal. But I ripped a lot of briefs my first week in clinicals, trying to learn how to turn and reposition people and not pull the brief tabs and rip them - like, that was one thing that I just didn't understand why I can't put a brief on this person.

MA: I mean, this sounds like a really tough job, but Princess persevered. She graduated at the top of her class, actually, and then she went on to earn a nursing degree. Today, she's director of nursing education at Virginia Health Services and helping to train aspiring CNAs.

WONG: And the program Princess helps lead has changed a lot since she went through it as a student. In 2020, Virginia Health Services got federal grant money aimed at expanding health care apprenticeships. It turned its old training program into an official registered apprenticeship. Now aspiring CNAs don't have to pay for the course like Princess did. They get paid while they learn the job. And the program has expanded from three weeks to six weeks.

MA: CEO Mark Klyczek says the grant money also provides financial support for apprentices that run into, you know, day-to-day life challenges.

KLYCZEK: Car broke down, can't get the kids into daycare, heating bill was way too high, these things that might cause people not to come to class or not to even start the class - that's the beauty of the apprenticeship program, is there's more supports for the people that are involved in it.

WONG: About 60 to 70 apprentices complete the program every year. Mark says, if it weren't for those apprentices, he would barely have gotten any applicants for CNA positions in 2021. That's how dire the hiring situation was that year.

MA: And being a CNA is a high-stress job, especially in senior living facilities, where large numbers of residents have dementia or Alzheimer's, and they need round-the-clock care. Employee turnover in nursing homes is high, and the pandemic definitely did not help.

HENDERSON: It was very difficult, but I definitely held on to, these people need me. I became a nurse for a reason, and I'm going to stick through this, and it'll be better.

MA: And it did get better, at least for Princess. She's enjoying this new stage in her career of nursing education, and she says having new trainees around is good for everyone else's morale, too.

HENDERSON: It gives our staff on the floor a little bit of hope. Like, somebody's coming in. We're training some more - we're constantly training, so we're going to have some help.

WONG: Virginia Health Services is now developing apprenticeship programs for positions in areas like dietary services and housekeeping. Mark says keeping facilities clean has become such a complex task that it does require specialized training. And he acknowledges that, yes, graduates could jump ship to other employers, but that just means, yes, to offer a good work environment so apprentices will want to stick around.

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WONG: This episode was produced by Corey Bridges, with engineering by Maggie Luthar. It was edited by senior producer Viet Le. Sierra Juarez checked the facts. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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